Trump, Obama, Russia and the FBI

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Donald Trump and Barack Obama in happier times.

President Trump shocked Democrats, Republicans and, apparently, his own staff, with a series of Saturday morning tweets accusing former President Obama of tapping his Trump Tower phones.

The first thing everyone noticed was that he offered no proof and no source for an accusation so serious that if true the former president could be arrested.

So where did Trump get the idea that this happened? Several news organizations reported Saturday that White House staff seemed surprised, not expecting any announcements Saturday.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed not to have been warned the tweets would be sent, nor given any information to back them up, so she argued that he was merely raising a question, not making a statement. But he did state his unsubstantiated assertion as fact.

Absent any explanation, news organizations guessed he was reacting to stories on right wing websites that the Justice Department sought a court order to monitor calls of Trump aides with Russia ties. They said an initial request that mentioned Trump was denied while a second request that left him out was approved.

Senate Intelligence Committee member Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said it would be “helpful” if Trump sent the committee “any evidence.” There were reports Sunday night from Washington that FBI Director James Comey had asked the Justice Department to explicitly refute the report.

The allegations on conservative websites that might have inspired the Trump tweets showed the same FBI investigation of Russian contacts by Trump advisors you already knew about, but rewritten to make it look like President Obama was personally behind it.

The linkage to Obama was managed, not with facts, but with writing style.

The articles referred not to the FBI (which is headed by a Republican) nor to the Justice Department (of which the FBI is part) but rather to “the Obama Justice Department.” Andrew McCarthy in the conservative National Review uses the term “Obama Justice Department” nine times.

This links the president, not with evidence, but by simply sticking his name in.

No president has legal power to order a wiretap on his own say-so. Linking Obama to whatever the FBI did is politically risky for Team Trump, since improper Russian contacts could be linked to him the same way even if it turns out he wasn’t personally the one doing it.

Senate Democrat Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Trump’s charge is bad for Trump whether true or false. If untrue, he argues, the president “doesn’t know how to conduct himself.” If true, he says, it means the federal court approving surveillance found grounds to authorize it.

All this has referred to the Russian contacts matter and the fresh attempt to turn the investigation of it into a scandal of its own, implicating Obama. But it’s worth noting that all of this refers to charges that subsequent investigations will confirm or deny. We’ll probably know more, one way or another, later.

In the meantime, partisan debate on such stuff is diverting attention from actual activities of the new administration and new Congress, including dramatic budget cuts to EPA, rescinding anti-pollution regulations, and zeroing out funding for coastal protection. The New York Times counts more than 90 regulations rescinded since President Trump took offices, not the silly little regulations everyone complains about but major rules that enforce good behavior by bad actors.

Lobbyists are lining up to tell which rules their clients most want abolished. Automakers want emissions rules relaxed. Pharmaceutical companies want freedom to take drugs that are already approved for one purpose and market them for something else that wasn’t part of the original approval.

EPA has already backed off its claim of jurisdiction over small streams that feed into big rivers, reducing its own abilikty to go after polluters. The White House proposes to cut the NOAA budget 17% and zero out funding for coastal management altogether.

These actions may be more relevant to your life than whether a Trump campaign manager hung out with a Putin associate last year. It may be worth making the effort to distinguish between that which might be proven later and that which is being undertaken right now.

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