President Donald Trump continues to diminish the credibility of the presidency in ways that erode public confidence and the nation’s standing in the world. His reckless accusation without any evidence that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of his phones may have been another foolish attempt to change the subject. But a president accusing his predecessor of violating the law without any proof reinforces concerns about Trump’s temperament, judgment and ability to govern effectively.
After last week’s positive reviews for his tempered speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump should have started this week on a high note. Instead he ignited another firestorm by tweeting Saturday morning that he had just learned Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower during the election and added, “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” This is not responsible or acceptable behavior from the leader of the free world, whose every word reverberates around the globe.
The response to Trump’s baseless claims has been swift. A president cannot legally order wiretaps, and the Justice Department would have to seek approval from a judge or from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Obama’s office denied ordering a wiretap. James Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, said there had been no wiretapping of Trump or his campaign. FBI director James Comey said Trump’s allegation is false and asked the Justice Department to refute it. There is not a shred of public evidence to substantiate Trump’s claims, and if the president has any to support such an explosive allegation he should immediately produce it.
Instead, news reports suggest Trump relied on conspiracy theories floated on conservative talk radio and by Breitbart News. Trump also was reportedly angered that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russia’s interference in the election after it was revealed Sessions misled senators by failing to mention his two meetings with the Russian ambassador. Instead of diverting attention from those legitimate investigations, the president intensified it.
Of course, Trump has long made bold allegations with no foundation in facts. He promoted the lie that Obama was not born in the United States. He claimed, without any documentation, that millions voted illegally. He complained about reports of the crowd size at his inauguration despite photos that documented he was wrong. But Trump’s claim that Obama illegally ordered wiretaps takes his penchant of popping off to a new level.
The presidency carries with it unmatched responsibility. Trump’s predecessors recognized those responsibilities, the impact of their words and the importance of public trust in the office. That trust is diminished when the president makes such rash, undocumented claims of criminal activity by his predecessor. The more Trump lashes out without any facts, the more difficult it will be for him to build support at home or abroad in a real crisis that affects the national security he talks so much about protecting.
The Justice Department should respond to Comey’s request to refute Trump’s claim. The congressional intelligence committees should immediately investigate and let the American public know the truth. And a special prosecutor or an independent commission should investigate Russia’s attempt to influence the election in favor of Trump — without being distracted by the president’s tweets.