The Conspiracy Theorist in Chief

The White House is backing the president’s fantastical charge that Obama “wire tapped” him.

President Donald Trump addresses his first joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Donald Trump is a conspiracy theorist. We know this. For most of the past 10 years, he fanned conspiracies about Barack Obama’s birthplace and origins. During the Republican presidential primary, he turned this conspiratorial gaze toward Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, questioning his citizenship and accusing his father, Cuban-born Rafael Cruz, of involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

After November, there was hope that Trump would be sobered by the responsibilities of the Oval Office. Instead, the presidency has supercharged his paranoia and conspiratorial instincts. In Trump’s mind, Hillary Clinton used millions of illegal ballots to win the popular vote, the media is suppressing evidence of his success, and Obama is leading a covert effort to destabilize his presidency.

It’s why, on Saturday, Trump accused Obama of illegally wiretapping his phones. “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” tweeted Trump. He added an apparent criminal allegation to this rant: “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 is an explosive charge which, if true, would amount to Obama having conducted the equivalent of another Watergate.

It’s not true—or at least, none of the available evidence is on Trump’s side.

What is true, and what was reported by the New York Times in January, is that “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.” The Times later said that Manafort was among “at least three Trump campaign advisers whose possible links to Russia are under scrutiny. Two others are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign, and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative.”

There were also reports that, last summer, FBI investigators sought a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant to monitor four Trump team members suspected of contact with Russian officials. But their request was denied. A subsequent report said the FBI received a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant in October, but this is still unconfirmed. Either way, there is no evidence this came at the behest of the White House. Or as a spokesperson for Obama said in a statement after Trump made his wild allegation:

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. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.

On Meet the Press, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied the claims entirely, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd “there was no such wiretap activity mounted against—the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign.” According to the New York Times, FBI Director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to publicly reject the president’s assertion. Even Trump’s aides have come up short in the search for information to back the president’s allegations.

No one can substantiate Trump’s charge. But this is immaterial for the man himself, for whom it’s a statement of belief—seemingly gleaned from the fever swamps of talk radio and Breitbart News. “This will be investigated,” said the president to a friend, in a conversation relayed to the Washington Post. “It will all come out. I will be proven right.” This is another example of what should be a terrifying fact about the president: There is no independent truth for Trump. There are only assertions which, through force of will, he thinks he can make “true”; fantasies with a patina of truthiness that hold an unbreakable grip on his mind.

If this were still the campaign, it would be bizarre and troubling enough. But Trump is the president of the United States who holds the often overstated, but still immense, power to shape the behavior of other political actors. In his hands, a conspiracy becomes an official statement defended by the White House and elevated by high-ranking lawmakers. Following Trump’s tweets, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called for Congress to determine whether “executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.” On Sunday, another spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the same, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “we believe it should be looked at by the House Intelligence Committee.” On Monday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the president “has information and intelligence that the rest of us do not,” suggesting Trump’s claims were based in fact, not fiction. And House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz has announced his plan to “look hard” at the Obama administration.

In a farcical turn in an already farcical year, we don’t just have a conspiracy-minded president—advised by a former purveyor of conspiracies. We now also have a conspiracy-minded White House, bolstered by an echo chamber of far-right media, aided and abetted by Republicans too afraid or too craven to break from an unhinged chief executive, even as his actions fuel more scrutiny and suspicion of his administration and its ties with Russia.

“Let me tell you something about this office that I’ve been in for eight years,” said Barack Obama in one of his final speeches as president. “Who you are—what you are—does not change after you occupy the Oval Office. All it does is magnify who you are. All it does is shine a spotlight on who you really are.”

Donald Trump has only shouldered the burdens and responsibilities of power for a few short months, but already we see who he is and has always been. Not the strong, dynamic businessman of his campaign ads but a disorganized dilettante, unprepared for the rigors of government, unwilling and unable to face reality with clear eyes and an open mind.