It is now almost a week since President Trump tweeted his incendiary allegation that former President Obama had had his phone bugged.
Since then there have no more leaks seeking to discredit the President or to destabilise his administration, whilst the demands for the resignation of Jeff Sessions, his Attorney General, seem to have stopped. Whether this is only a temporary respite or whether a real corner has been turned remains to be seen.
At this point I feel it might be useful to say something about two claims that have been made by the President’s opponents since he made his claim. These are
(1) that the President’s officials are staying silent and are failing to speak out in support of what the President said; and
(2) that the President has provided no evidence to support his claim.
Both these assertions are true. They are not however the whole truth, and showing how this is the case casts a further light on this strange affair.
Firstly, a day after the President made his claim the administration announced that neither he nor anyone else in the administration would comment publicly on the claim further but that the President had asked Congress to investigate “the abuses of power by the Obama administration”, which presumably would also include investigating his claim.
I am not an expert on US public and constitutional law, but I would not be surprised if there were legal explanations for this silence, with the issue possibly sub judice whilst Congressional and possibly other investigations into this issue are underway. It may also be the case that the President’s legal advisers have advised him that it is anyway in his interest not to have this question discussed further in the media whilst the investigations are underway regardless of whether the issue is technically sub judice or not.
Putting these points aside, the far more interesting point is surely the lack of comment from the other side.
As I have written previously, Obama and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have made publicly only qualified denials, with Obama denying that he ordered the wiretap and Clapper denying that any part of the intelligence and security bureaucracy he supervised was involved in any wiretap, but both leaving it open that a wiretap might have occurred but been carried out by someone else.
FBI Director James Comey for his part is alleged by an anonymously sourced article in The New York Times to have also denied that Obama ordered a wiretap, which however again leaves open the possibility that a wiretap might have been carried out on the orders of someone else.
Interestingly Comey attended a public meeting with the media present two days ago at which he had the perfect opportunity to confirm publicly his anonymously reported denial. He pointedly failed to do so, instead bragging that he would continue as FBI Director for another 6 years.
Comey’s continued failure to make a public statement must inevitably increase suspicions that he does not want to say something in public which could be construed later as a denial of a wiretap which actually took place, whilst his public bragging that he will continue as FBI Director for a further 6 years must also inevitably give rise to suspicion that his principle concern all along was to seek assurances from the Justice Department that he has done nothing improper or illegal, and that his bragging shows that he has received those assrances. I would stress that at this point in time these are suspicions only. However Comey’s own conduct inevitably invites them.
Meanwhile the most important people of all involved or potentially involved in this affair – the former top officials of Obama’s Justice Department Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates – who must surely know the whole truth, have pointedly said nothing.
Lynch’s and Yates’s silence should no more be construed as an admission of a wiretap than the qualified denials by Obama, Clapper and Comey should be. Moreover just as there may be valid legal explanations for the President’s silence and for that of his advisers, so there may be valid legal explanations for the silence of Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates.
I do however find it interesting that whilst the media has been busy speculating about the reasons for the silence of the President and his officials, no-one is commenting on the silence of Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates and of the other officials of Obama’s Justice Department, who are the ones who surely know the full truth about this affair.
As for the lack of evidence behind the President’s claim, concern about the absence of evidence to support a claim comes strangely from people who have been busy for months spreading dark and evidence-less stories of collusion by the President and his campaign team with Russia. The best comment I have seen about the demented quality of this comes from Glenn Greenwald, who is of course both a trained lawyer and (as his comment shows) no supporter of the President’s
I’ve been asked often why I’ve written so much against the prevailing sentiments on Russia and Trump. It’s not just because this obsessive narrative distracts from Trump’s genuinely consequential actions or from the need to find an effective vessel for activism against über-right-wing nationalism. It’s not just because it’s driven by ugly and historically familiar anti-Russian xenophobia, nor because it dangerously ratchets up tensions between two nuclear-armed, traditionally hostile countries. Those things are all true, but that’s not the main impetus.
Above all else, it’s because it’s an offensive assault on reason. This kind of deranged discourse is an attack on basic journalistic integrity, on any minimal obligation to ensure that one’s claims are based in evidence rather than desire, fantasy, and herd-enforced delusions. And it’s emanating from the most established and mainstream precincts of U.S. political and media elites, who have processed the severe disorientation and loss of position they feel from Trump’s shock election not by doing the work to patiently formulate cogent, effective strategies against him, but rather by desperately latching onto online “dot-connecting” charlatans and spewing the most unhinged Birther-level conspiracies that require a complete abandonment of basic principles of rationality and skepticism.
(bold italics added)
In light of all that it should come as no surprise that the very same people who condemned the President for making a claim for which they said he produced no evidence then promptly did the same thing themselves, claiming that the President got the whole idea from an article in Breitbart.
There is not a scintilla of evidence to support that claim, which can be no more than a guess. There must be at least a possibility that the President, who presides over the most gigantic intelligence and national security bureaucracy in human history, obtained his information from them, and that the stories which appeared in the media just before the President made his own revelations public were sourced from his advisers, specifically from Steve Bannon, who has connections to some of the media outlets that published the stories. That was my assumption in the hours after the President made his claims, and I would have thought it was the natural one.
It is to be earnestly hoped that the relative silence that has descended over this tangled affair during the last week now continues. To say that so far there has been more heat than light would be a gigantic understatement. With multiple investigations now underway, the correct thing to do is not to try to second guess them or manipulate them through strategically placed leaks, but to leave them alone to do their job so that they can report fully and calmly what they find.
In the meantime I would repeat my view that based on all the information which we have seen so far, it is the surveillance of the President and his associates during and after the election, for which ample evidence exists, which is the real scandal, and not the half-baked conspiracy theories of some gigantic conspiracy between the President and Russia, of which there is no evidence at all.