Faced with an explosive political situation at his feet, Trump lobs a rhetorical grenade elsewhere
It moves the conversation from one that has him on defense to one where he is on offense
The weekend’s frenzy over President Donald Trump’s so-far unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor tried to wiretap him is the latest example of a world view in which elections are rigged, the news he doesn’t like is fake, there is mass voter fraud and the intelligence community is out to topple the White House with leaks.
It’s the latest example in a pattern perfected by a president whose actions have had the effect of diversion. Faced with an explosive political situation at his feet, he lobs a rhetorical grenade elsewhere, using the resulting blast and confusion to his advantage. It moves the conversation from one that has him on defense to one where he is on offense.
When Trump made the unsubstantiated claim on Twitter that his predecessor had wiretapped him in the waning days of the 2016 election, it diverted attention from the growing body of undisputed reports that his surrogates and staffers had met with the Russian ambassador before and after the election. His campaign chairman was forced out over the summer after questions about his ties to Ukraine and Russia, his national security adviser was fired last month and last week came the news that his staffers and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russians before the election.
Russians at that time were doing their own meddling in the 2016 campaign, according to a US intelligence report.
There’s no evidence that the Trump campaign had anything to do with that effort, but the meetings, disputed at first but then admitted became an overriding focus in the news media. After the intelligence community concluded Russia was trying to meddle in the election, the meetings between Trump staffers and Russian officials were certainly newsworthy, even if no direct connection was established.
Trump effectively parried those difficult questions when he thrust focus, without any evidence, onto former President Barack Obama. James Clapper, who was the director of national intelligence under Obama, denied the claim, saying there was “no such wiretap activity” by the intelligence agencies he oversaw. Plus, the FBI asked the Justice Department to push back against Trump’s claim, but they have not.
Other examples of Trump claims that had a diversionary affect include:
When he appeared to be losing in public opinion polls ahead of the November election, Trump called the entire election system into question, arguing repeatedly that it was rigged against him.
When he pulled off a stunning and decisive Electoral College victory but just as decisively lost the popular vote, Trump had a new answer. He said a massive effort of voter fraud cost him winning a majority. He promised an investigation, too, although it has yet to materialize.
When it became clear that false stories spread on social media platforms about his 2016 opponent, Trump turned the problem of incorrect reporting around and started a campaign to label legitimate news organizations as “fake news” purveyors. The term fake news is now almost entirely associated with his campaign against the media and not the conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton.
When protesters took to the streets, shocked and dismayed after his remarkable election day victory, Trump dismissed them as professionals, incited by the media.
When the first series of reports emerged that his staffers, particularly former national security adviser Michael Flynn, had spoken to Russian officials on the day the Obama administration had announced new sanctions against Russia, Trump hit back that it was leaks that were the real offense. That didn’t save Flynn his job – he was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts. But Congress took Trump’s cue and is now investigating leaks with the same, or more vigor than it is investigating Russian meddling in the election.
Now that he’s president and has the muscle of the federal government behind him, these efforts can have real consequences.
There may very well be a large-scale federal investigation into voter fraud for which there is no proof.
Similarly with the effort to tamp down on leaks and the White House has already demanded an investigation into the idea that Obama ordered wiretaps of Trump despite a lack of evidence provided by Trump.
The wheels of government will turn where the President tells them to go, even if there isn’t any evidence.