In the first week of March, in the midst of the over-blown flap regarding Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ two meetings with the Russian ambassador, President Trump issued arguably his most explosive tweet yet:
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!.
Later, he tweeted,
“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”
It has been more than a week, and we know only a little more about what prompted this extraordinary accusation than we did then. However, there are some relevant ethics point to be made. Here we go…
1. It is irresponsible and unpresidential to issue tweets like this. It is also unfair. If the Trump administration wants to make a formal complaint, charge or indictment, or announce an investigation, it should be made through proper channels, not social media. That stipulated, he will not stop doing this, and at some point we will have to accept it. Is this how Presidents communicate? It is now.
2. Thus the tweet is unethical even if it is true. However, the fact that it is unethical, or that Trump the Liar sent it, doesn’t mean it is untrue. An astounding number of pundits and journalists have made exactly that assumption, proving their bias against the President and their knee-jerk defensiveness regarding former President Obama.
3. The tweet cannot be called a “lie,” and anyone who does call it a lie based on what is known is revealing their confirmation bias.
4. One more point about the tweet itself: the fact that it has a typo and the level of articulation of the average 9th grader is itself an ethics breach. The President should not sanctify carelessness, or seem to embrace it. He is a role model. Nor should a significant charge be written in haste, as this obviously was.
5. There seems to be a significant possibility that the President was trolling. Having had enough of the months long, absolutely evidence-free news media and Democrat innuendos that his campaign was coordinating election tampering with the Russians, he may have decided to make a sensational, unsubstantiated charge of his own to get the Russian hacking speculation off the front pages. If it was trolling, it was excellent trolling. The McCarthyism purveyors deserved it; the accusation was a deft tit-for-tat, one of the President’s favorite rationalizations.
6. As an example of what Trump has been and is being subjected to, we have Rep. Keith Ellison, vice-chair of the DNC. He told Alisyn Camerota on CNN’s “New Day last week,”
“This is stunning when you think about it. Far worse than Watergate, when you believe a hostile foreign power engaged in an attempt, and with the collusion of the sitting administration to manipulate an election.”
By sheerest moral luck, Camerota that day was feeling ethical, so she actually corrected a Trump-basher from her own party, said, “Well you don’t know that,” and pointed out that there is no evidence of collusion.
“I’m not saying there was collusion, I’m saying those meetings indicate that there could be, and I think that needs to be investigated,” Ellison then said, immediately after saying there was collusion.
These are awful, vicious, conscience- free people who subcribe to total political war and the ends justify the means. They are trying to bring down an elected government without winning an election. Even that does not justify treating them unethically, BUT…
7. To someone who thinks like Trump, and many of his staff, advisors and supporters, employing an unproven accusation to smear the previous President and news media darling after Obama’s surrogates and journalists been smearing him might seem like a good tactic. It is still an unethical tactic. Doing that would be a direct and intentional lie, misleading the public, undermining the President’s credibility (further), and seeming to declare war on his predecessor …unless…
8. …the President believes that Obama has declared war on him.
There is evidence to support that conclusion. As Ethics Alarms has written before, the President’s administration and presidency have been subjected to unprecedented attack from all reaches of the Democratic/progressive/news media complex. The duly-elected President has an obligation to protect the Constitution, our institutions and the integrity of elections. He cannot ethically sit back passively while forces try to undermine his office and authority in an effort to overthrow him. Because what Democrats, seemingly under the leadership of Obama’s allies or the former President personally, are attempting to do is un-American, dangerous and extraordinary, Trump can be allowed, ethically, to take extraordinary measures to counter the threat to the Republic.
I would argue that even if Trump’s enemies employ lies and false accusations, as President he must limit himself to more honorable tactics. I am also certain that he would not agree. I am reasonably certain that few politicians, and few Presidents, would agree either.
9. While the accusations that Donald Trump and his staff colluded with the Russians to “hack the election” is completely unsupported by fact or logic, that is not the case with Trump’s accusation.
10. Remember what prompted Trump’s tweet, other than his pique at Sessions having to recuse himself from the Russian hacks investigation. Right before the President’s tweet, conservative talk-show host Mark Levin, a lawyer, writer, Constitutional scholar and former Reagan administration attorney, told his audience,
“There’s a much bigger scandal here: We have a prior administration. Barack Obama and his surrogates, who are supporting Hillary Clinton and her party, the Democratic Party. Who were using the… intelligence activities to surveil members of the Trump campaign, and to put that information out in the public. Those are police state tactics. Nothing Flynn or Sessions has done is even in the same category as that. The question is: Was Obama surveilling top Trump campaign officials during the election? We absolutely know this is true, the FBI did a preliminary criminal investigation based on a potential connection between a server in Trump Tower and a couple of Russian banks. That turned out to be a dry hole, but one of the most outrageous things I’ve ever seen… totally uncovered by the media. Instead of closing the investigation, the Obama administration tried to turn it into a FISA court investigation in June . Apparently the first application they submitted named Trump. Even the FISA court said no. There wasn’t enough evidence to make out probable cause involving Donald Trump. In the middle of the campaign the administration was actively having Trump investigated.”
Do not underestimate Mark Levin. He is far from a Trump acolyte, he is a serious, if ideologically-driven, commentator, and as a lawyer and public figure, he would not knowingly make accusations that he could not back up. What he claimed is not exactly what Trump wrote (although I wouldn’t bet money that it wassn’t what Trump meant), but it is disturbing, and he is right: if true, these are police state tactics, and worse than anything Russia is alleged to have done.
11. I suppose I should elaborate a bit on this here, though it deserves its own post. No former President ever, in our history, has actively sought to undermine the ability of his successor to govern—until Barack Obama. He has remained in Washington. He has, it is reported, kept Valerie Jarrett on payroll, which sure looks like an attempt to maintain a shadow White House. (Snopes is dubious, which is one more reason to believe it’s true.) The New York Post, yes, a conservative paper, and the Daily Mail, have written extensively about the Obamas planning on actively participating in “the resistance” and “toppling Trump.”
Is all of it true? I doubt it. I do not doubt that some of it is, and do you know what? None of it should be. Barack Obama should have decency and the respect for tradition to give Donald Trump the same professional courtesy and deference, respect and restraint that George W. Bush gave him. “I owe him my silence,” Bush said. Exactly. Obama also owes Trump his silence, in no small part because that’s how the previous GOP President treated his Presidency. Obama’s conduct defies the Golden Rule, as well as precedent, and professional courtesy.
Trump threatens Obama’s legacy? Tough. Live with it: if Obama had done a better job, Trump wouldn’t be in the White House. Probably the least supportive former President before Obama was Jimmy Carter, but he was beaten, and not popular enough to do much damage. What Obama is doing to Trump is wildly irresponsible, though hardly surprising given the man’s arrogance. It carries on the devisiveness that was the primary legacy of his terms in office, and it actively threatens the stability of the United States.
12. Unfair, you say? Fine: Obama can eliminate all doubts by issuing a single, unequivocal statement that he will, like George Bush, stay away from any form of interference with President Trump, leaving the opposition to his party and its elected officials. Obama could do it tomorrow. He should have done it already. That he hasn’t, and won’t, is damning…damning, and despicable.
13. Obama or his surrogates could also unequivocally deny Trump’s accusation. Oddly, ominously, they have not. The Obama camp has only said that the President didn’t “order” surveillance of Trump. Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said that “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
This is Clintonian deceit, as well as a straw man. Trump’s tweet didn’t say that Obama “ordered” anything. Ann Althouse wrote,
I’m tired of reading things like “President Trump’s astonishing and reckless accusation that he was wiretapped on orders from President Barack Obama should finally be the tipping point in how the country views him and his presidency.” (That’s E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.) From what I’ve read, “ordered” is the weasel word that allows anti-Trumpsters to make flat statements portraying Trump as out of his mind. But the notorious Trump tweets do not say that Obama “ordered” a wiretapping. They ask if it is “legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election?” and refer to what a court had done. Though Trump didn’t precisely say this, any “order” came from the court. He then said “President Obama was tapping my phones,” which isn’t to say that he “ordered” it. I think the story Trump is relying on is that the FISA court granted a warrant (after some funny business to get around a previous denial), not that Obama just “ordered” it. Then, Trump tweeted that Obama had gone “low… to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process.” Trump portrays Obama as doing something, not “ordering” it.
Unless the anti-Trumpsters can speak clearly avoid the safety of that word, I will not trust what they say.
14. Nixon didn’t order the Watergate burglary, nor any of the various dirty tricks Donald Segretti used to sabotage Tricky Dick’s potential Democratic rivals in 1972. Henry II didn’t order his knights to kill Thomas Becket, when he shouted out in their presence, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Yet Becket was murdered, and the king held responsible and accountable. It is reasonable to believe that any number of Obama subordinates, knowing his wishes, may have persuaded the IRS to undermine conservative groups during the 2012 campaign.
15. Former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy delved further into the Obama camp’s claim that the president didn’t “order” surveillance of Trump, writing in The National Review:
First, as Obama officials well know, under the FISA process, it is technically the FISA court that ‘orders’ surveillance. And by statute, it is the Justice department, not the White House, that represents the government in proceedings before the FISA court. So, the issue is not whether Obama or some member of his White House staff “ordered” surveillance of Trump and his associates. The issues are (a) whether the Obama Justice Department sought such surveillance authorization from the FISA court, and (b) whether, if the Justice Department did that, the White House was aware of or complicit in the decision to do so. Personally, given the explosive and controversial nature of the surveillance request we are talking about — an application to wiretap the presidential candidate of the opposition party, and some of his associates, during the heat of the presidential campaign, based on the allegation that the candidate and his associates were acting as Russian agents — it seems to me that there is less than zero chance that could have happened without consultation between the Justice Department and the White House.
16. Again: Why no unequivocal denial? Why no clear, unambiguous statement, such as.
‘Neither I, nor anyone who reports to me, nor anyone in my administration, nor any agency in the executive branch, engaged in surveillance of any kind upon President Trump, his family, his properties, his staff or his associates, or their communications, electronic or otherwise.’
That wasn’t hard: I just came up with it in 15 seconds, one draft. Yet when Obama’s paid liar, Josh Earnest, was asked last week if he could “categorically deny” that there was any wiretapping of President Donald Trump’s campaign by Obama’s Justice Department, he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz, “I don’t know.” The day before, Jon Favreau, Obama’s former director of speechwriting tweeted, “I’d be careful about reporting that Obama said there was no wiretapping. Statement just said that neither he nor the WH ordered it.”
17. In January, the New York Times published a story that seemed to say that the investigation into Trump’s campaign involved wiretapping. This , Mark Levin has said, was a primary source of his conclusions.
From the story:
The F.B.I. is leading the investigations, aided by the National Security Agency, the C.I.A. and the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit. The investigators have accelerated their efforts in recent weeks but have found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, the officials said. One official said intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House.
Then, when Trump issued his tweet, Michael S. Schmidt, the same Times reporter who wrote that article, by-lined a front page article claiming President Trump had no evidence.
18. For what it is worth, and I have no idea, NSA whistleblower Bill Binney told Fox Business this week, that the President was “absolutely right,” that he was wiretapped and monitored. “His phone calls, everything he did electronically, was being monitored,” Binney said.
19. Law professor and conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds wrote in USA Today:
Obama wouldn’t be the first president to engage in illegal surveillance of opposition candidates, and his administration has been noted for its great enthusiasm for domestic spying. In an effort to plug embarrassing leaks, the Obama administration spied on Associated Press reporters and seized the phone records not only of a Fox News reporter but also of his parents. Obama’s political allies even alleged that his CIA spied on Congress.Nor is it unbelievable that under the Obama administration, supposedly non-partisan civil servants would go after political opponents. After all, the notorious IRS scandal was about exactly that.
… Maybe, upon investigation, it will turn out that nothing improper happened — that this is a lot of smoke, but that there’s no fire. But we can’t know without an investigation, and if there really were political abuses of the Justice Department and the intelligence surveillance process, those guilty should not simply be exposed but go to jail. Such abuse strikes at democracy itself.
20. Finally, regarding the tweet itself: Especially if some of the suspicions expressed by McCarthy, Reynold and others turn out to be true, the news media will still insist that Trump’s tweet be interpreted literally, even though we all know that he speaks in clouds and generalities. The tweet accused the Obama administration of spying on his campaign, during the campaign. Just as he did not suggest that Obama was personally listening in on phone calls, Trump’s personal phones did not have to be tapped to make his charge accurate. It is enough that his campaign was being tapped…if indeed it was.