On March 4 Donald Trump started a firestorm when he tweeted that President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. Suddenly the House Intelligence Committee investigation that was looking into possible ties between Trump associates and Russian meddling in the election ground to a halt as Trump allies such as committee chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) felt the need to investigate the Naked Emperor's claim.
Several days of outrage over Trump's accusation in right-wing media reached their climax when blogger and Trump supporter Mike Cernovich broke a story claiming that President Obama's national security advisor Susan Rice had requested the "unmasking" of the names of Americans in intelligence reports. That request, which was perfectly normal by all accounts, sent righties into a tizzy, convinced that in Rice, they had found the "smoking gun" that proved the great savior of America had been surveilled by his evil predecessor.
The faux scandal was largely put to bed when members and staffers from the House committee visited the headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, reviewed a binder full of documents related to the issue, and pronounced officially that there was no "there" there. Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed: Susan Rice had done nothing wrong.
But that make-believe scandal was the genesis of a much bigger, much more real one. Ryan Lizza, writing in The New Yorker, revealed that the White House directed intelligence agencies to find evidence to support Trump's claims that he was illegally spied upon by the Obama administration.
Lizza described conversations with two sources in the intelligence community. One of those sources confirmed that the congressmen who reviewed the documents were correct in their assessment that Rice had not violated any laws or protocol. And one of them dropped this bombshell:
The intelligence source told me that he knows, “from talking to people in the intelligence community,” that “the White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.’ They put out an all-points bulletin”—a call to sift through intelligence reports—“and said, ‘We need to find something that justifies the President’s crazy tweet about surveillance at Trump Tower.’ And I’m telling you there is no way you get that from those transcripts, which are about as plain vanilla as can be.”
What that intelligence professional is saying is that instead of Trump raising an issue with his advisors and asking them to look into it, he tweeted something with zero evidence to support it, and then those around him set out on a desperate mission to attempt to prove he was right. That is what happens in dictatorships, not democracies. And it should scare the hell out of you.
Not that we needed more confirmation, but this shows that Trump's inner circle is filled with people who, for whatever reason, will not speak truth to power. It is easy to imagine a Hillary Clinton, a John Kerry, or any number of other Obama advisors being willing to challenge him on a questionable assertion. It's not a reach to imagine a Colin Powell or a Condoleezza Rice speaking up to George W. Bush. But not Trump. God-Emperor speaks, and it is his loyal minions' responsibility to make it so.
Whether or not the American republic survives the rule of Trump is going to depend largely on the ability of our institutions to push back against the fiction that comes out of the White House on a daily basis. So far those institutions have managed to hold the line. But we are only three months in. Can they continue to do so as Trump consolidates his hold on the government and more disciples of Trumpism find themselves in positions that will allow them to manipulate the narrative in Trump's favor? We had all better hope that the answer to that question is "yes."