Mar 6, 2017

Towergate: Trump's great gamble

Saudi newspaper Al Watan, via @BazziNYU (h/t WashPost WorldView newsletter)

I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump's inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn't regret this weekend's fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is "absolutely convinced" he'll be vindicated.

"The president just has a great nose for these things," the official said. "It's the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers."

Those facts help explain Trump's high-stakes decision to ask Congress to add Obama abuse of "executive branch investigative powers" to its Russia investigation. For Trump spokespeople, it's a handy punt: Now they don't have to defend or explain Trump's tweets, and just refer questioners to Congress.

But the risk is that there'll be a day of reckoning — perhaps after documents are subpoenaed and testimony demanded — when a Republican Congress embarrasses the White House by saying the president was flat wrong when he accused his predecessor of a crime.

Towergate is a fascinating test of Trump's great gamble that he can do the job of president in a totally new way: largely improvisational, driven by whims, moods and obsessions; thinly staffed, like his campaign, and with poorly enforced process, not taking advantage of the massive safety net available to him; heavily reliant on family; and unconstrained by manners, rituals or precedent.

FBI Director Comey reportedly turned on Trump and asked the Justice Department to reject the tapping claim. And Sen. Marco Rubio expressed skepticism on Sunday shows.

But some well-known Republicans are willing to wage the debate on Trump's terms. One establishment grandee asked in an email: Did Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch "approve this??? That is the big Q" — skipping over whether "this" is real.

A Democratic theory is that if Trump believes problematic transcripts of recorded calls with Russians may dribble or gush out, why not discredit them in advance as a political dirty trick? Then when they emerge, you can say "Aha!" rather than being on the defensive.

But a Republican close to the White House said that's overthinking it: That "view is quite plausible. But I do not believe they are playing chess. I think they are playing Trivial Pursuit."

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