If Trump’s tweets are a bid to deflect attention from ‘Russiagate’, it’s not working Paul McGeough

Donald Trump is up in the middle of the night – again. His latest lash-out – a Twitter blitzkrieg early on Saturday, in which he accuses Barack Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap the phones at the Trump Tower headquarters in New York in the run-up to last year’s election – featured a succession of five similarly-worded tweets, belted out between 3.32am and 4.02am.

He’s at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and, coming minutes apart, the tweets started with a charge of “McCarthyism!” and ended with an ugly political stab at Obama – “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Trump alleges wiretapping by Obama
Donald Trump accuses Barack Obama of wiretapping him during the late stages of the presidential election campaign, but offered no evidence to support the allegation.

But more instructive was Trump’s next tweet, because it shines a light on how the mind of this president works. Having lobbed his earlier grenades, Trump might have been expected to lie low for a bit, to see what happened.

His 5.19am effort raises legitimate questions of the fitness of the President for his role.

Can the US presidency be left in the hands of a man who [1], thinks it’s appropriate to use Twitter to level such charges against Obama – without a shred of evidence. And then [2], seemingly bored, or perhaps believing the issues are of equal gravity, he was tweeting again: “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show.”

“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice,” Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said in a statement. “As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”

A tweeted response by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s longtime national security adviser, used blunt language to address Trump: “No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”

Senior administration officials, who claim to be across the various security and congressional investigations into Trump’s Russia connections, also insisted that Trump had not been wiretapped.

There’s an argument that invoking the name of the FISA court is a risky strategy for Trump – because if it had issued an eavesdropping order on Trump or his associates, it would mean that a federal judge had been convinced that there was “probable cause” for such an order, which is to say there was explicit evidence that a crime had been committed.

“It’s extremely unlikely that there would have been any sort of criminal or intelligence surveillance of Trump,” Jennifer Daskal, a former senior Justice Department national security official, told the Washington Post. “There’s no credible evidence yet to suggest that that happened. It would be an extraordinary measure for the FBI to ask for and the court to grant a surveillance order on a presidential candidate of the opposing party in an election year.”

Republicans were as affronted as Democrats by the Trump tweets. Republican senator and vocal Trump critic Lindsey Graham seemed happy to implicitly push Democratic party demands for an independent investigation, arguing that “[we have to] get to the bottom of this … biggest scandal since Watergate”.

Republican senator Ben Sasse demanded that Trump substantiate his charges. “We are in the midst of a civilisation-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots,” he said.

Experts described a strictly controlled and onerous approval process for criminal and foreign intelligence wiretaps, requiring multiple levels of internal Justice Department review and a formal order from the FISA court – and which was designed to make sure that a sitting president could not use the process to go after his rivals.

Frustrated by a seemingly endless stream of embarrassing leaks to the mainstream media on Trump’s Russia connections – from election hacking to collusion between Trump and the Russians to signs of a cover-up – conservative media in recent days have been serving up unfounded stories of Obama and his circle attempting to force Trump’s impeachment or resignation.

And Trump has ordered an internal witchhunt, egged on by his sometimes adviser Roger Stone, who told the Washington Post: “He needs to clean house. Just clean house! Hand the pink slips to everybody … Lock them out of their offices and tell the FBI to start going through their emails and phone messages.”

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