Spying on Trump: The arrogance of certainty persists

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I remember March 4, 2017 very well. I was having lunch with a colleague and after we broke up, I grabbed my phone, which I had ignored during our long encounter so as not to be rude. By that time it had “exploded,” as they say, with snippets of news.

President Trump had tweeted the following (it seems like ages since Twitter respected freedom of speech doesn’t it?): “Horrible! I just found out that Obama tapped my “wires” in Trump Tower just before the win. Nothing found. That’s McCarthyism!”

What followed from the usual media chorus was an arrogant certainty that Trump’s claim must be wrong, that there is no way President Obama would ever do such a thing, and that Trump has evidently lost his mind. In fact, the latter speculation spawned a slew of new rumors that Trump’s cabinet members were debating whether to nominate the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office for apparently going insane.

Despite being a charismatic speaker, whether intentional or not, Trump has never been a particularly clear ambassador. He often chooses the path of greatest resistance. In messages that can be perceived in a variety of ways, Trump routinely chooses to deliver the most outrageous version.

To that end, Trump’s tweet conjures up a scenario in which Obama calls then-FBI Director James Comey and says, “Jim? This is the President. I want you to bug the phones in Trump Tower.” For those who think the United States is nothing more than a banana republic, where the dictator uses government power to bully and ultimately destroy his opposition, such a possibility is not only feasible but probable. However, for most people who understand how our country works and who don’t have a woefully inaccurate picture of Obama’s character, while it’s theoretically possible, it’s highly unlikely.

A more believable scenario — and what actually happened — is that the FBI did indeed spy on the Trump campaign, but apparently as part of an investigation into specific individuals, not to thwart the GOP candidate’s attempt to win the White House. Whatever the FBI’s motives, the Obama administration insisted that it was the president’s “cardinal rule” never to personally interfere with an investigation, and certainly never to order a wiretapping. My gut tells me that’s true, but like any problem, I could be wrong.

However, it is very important that Trump’s sloppy description that Obama was spying on him wasn’t made up out of thin air because the FBI was technically monitoring his organization.

Now, a new explosive report has emerged that people loyal to Hillary Clinton, with or without her knowledge, spied on Trump not only in private, but also when he was President, by infiltrating White House databases. The report came from John Durham, who was appointed by the Trump administration and installed by the Biden administration as a special adviser to the Justice Department.

Durham’s report may turn out to be wrong, but just as there are prominent mainstream analysts who dismiss it as tenuous, others of equal standing hold the exact opposite view.

It’s not about whether Trump was really spied on, and if so, to what extent it was illegal. Rather, it’s about the arrogance of knowing that he was – or wasn’t.

Part of the narrative against Trump, which I always found particularly ridiculous, was that he was in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, either because Putin was worth it financially to Trump or because he had compromising photos of Trump with Russian prostitutes and they were held over Trump’s head as blackmail.

The latter fixation has no more credible basis than laundress gossip. The former, worse, doesn’t even make logical sense. Here’s why: Trump loves himself as few would say. But he also loves the United States, like a little boy in a way. He views the world in terms of winning and losing, and his childhood memory of America is that – much like Batman, Superman or the Lone Ranger – it always won. That we’re going to beat the British, the Confederacy, the Germans, the Japanese, and the Russians in the Cold War, and that we have to go back to winning all the time like we used to.
But what happens when Trump’s love of self and love of country conflict? Suppose Trump granted a fairly harmless nation, say Sweden, special favors in exchange for them funding a new chain of Trump casino hotels across the country after he left office. That would be an illegal abuse of Trump’s presidential powers, and I’m not saying he would do such a thing, but if he rationalized, “What’s wrong with that? I’m helping myself, but I’m not harming the United States because Sweden is our friend anyway.” I don’t see it as absurdly impossible.
But that Trump is helping Russia? This is like a lifelong Batman fan helping the Joker or the Riddler.

Even more bizarre is the idea that Putin would have wanted Trump as president instead of Hillary. Of course, for those who believe Trump’s bribery is undeniable and sure he wouldn’t rule out aid to our longtime Cold War adversary, it makes sense: Putin wanted a president he could control.

But suppose Trump didn’t actually sell the United States to Russia. In that case, it would be utterly illogical for Putin, a chest-tapping alpha male, to choose another alpha male in the White House — one with an even bigger chest — over a woman who, in his own alpha male mind, couldn’t possibly be as smart or as strong.

Again, this is all conjecture. But dismissing them as categorically wrong is the tragic mistake of arrogant certainty.

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