What will it take for Trump to re­tract wire­tap tweets?

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - dan.balz@wash­post.com

A pru­dent pres­i­dent, fac­ing mul­ti­ple bat­tles on leg­isla­tive and other pri­or­i­ties that are cru­cial to his first-year suc­cess, would find ways to avoid need­less con­tro­versy. Not Pres­i­dent Trump. He’s do­ing ex­actly the op­po­site, and the cred­i­bil­ity gap con­tin­ues to grow.

The House Repub­li­can lead­er­ship’s pro­posal to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act, which Trump has em­braced, faces se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion within the party. The pres­i­dent’s newly pro­posed bud­get, which would slash do­mes­tic dis­cre­tionary spend­ing, the State Depart­ment and the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, has been met with stiff re­sis­tance, even among some Repub­li­cans. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sec­ond at­tempt to im­pose a travel ban is on hold, once again caught up in the courts.

Mean­while, Trump will not let go of his claim that former pres­i­dent Barack Obama tapped his phones at Trump Tower dur­ing the elec­tion, de­spite no sup­port­ing ev­i­dence. The pres­i­dent has been of­fered nu­mer­ous exit ramps to put this self-cre­ated con­tro­versy be­hind him. In­stead, he re­mains stub­bornly de­fi­ant, per­pet­u­at­ing rather than clos­ing a dam­ag­ing chap­ter in his pres­i­dency that in the past few days be­came an in­ter­na­tional em­bar­rass­ment.

The lat­est illustration of the pres­i­dent’s in­ca­pac­ity to ad­mit er­ror came Fri­day at a joint news con­fer­ence with Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. He was asked by Ger­man re­porter Ans­gar Graw of Die Welt about the an­gry de­nial by British of­fi­cials that Bri­tain, at the be­hest of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, had spied on Trump dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

“Do you think it was a mis­take to blame British in­tel­li­gence for this?” the pres­i­dent was asked. White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer had pointed to an un­ver­i­fied re­port about British in­tel­li­gence a day ear­lier. Trump be­gan his an­swer with what he hoped would be a light­hearted com­ment, but one nonethe­less that sug­gested he didn’t be­lieve the British.

Ges­tur­ing to­ward Merkel, he said, “As far as wire­tap­ping, I guess, by this past ad­min­is­tra­tion, at least we have some­thing in com­mon, per­haps.” The pres­i­dent was re­fer­ring to re­ports that the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency had lis­tened in on the Ger­man chan­cellery dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency.

De­spite laugh­ter in the East Room, Merkel ap­peared to find no hu­mor in Trump’s re­sponse, of­fer­ing a look that char­i­ta­bly could be called one of puz­zle­ment that the leader of the world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try would try to drag her into his con­tro­versy.

Trump might have stopped there, but he plunged ahead. “And just to fin­ish your ques­tion,” he told the Ger­man re­porter, “we said noth­ing. All we did was quote a cer­tain very tal­ented le­gal mind who was the one re­spon­si­ble for say­ing that on tele­vi­sion. I didn’t make an opin­ion on it. That was a state­ment made by a very tal­ented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox, okay?”

With that re­sponse, Trump was fol­low­ing a play­book that has be­come stan­dard for his White House, which is to duck, de­flect and in all other ways do ev­ery­thing but ac­knowl­edge that there is no cred­i­ble ev­i­dence for Trump’s original claim, tweeted out a few weeks ago. Hav­ing made the al­le­ga­tion, the pres­i­dent has asked oth­ers to prove it. When the ev­i­dence points in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, the White House prefers to look for ques­tion­able ways to sup­port what Trump claimed.

That was the case with Trump’s words Fri­day. The “tal­ented lawyer” to whom the pres­i­dent was re­fer­ring was An­drew Napoli­tano, a former New Jer­sey Su­pe­rior Court judge now work­ing as a Fox News com­men­ta­tor. Napoli­tano was the orig­i­na­tor of the as­ser­tion about the British role in the sur­veil­lance of Trump, bas­ing what he said on three in­tel­li­gence sources.

Spicer had cited Napoli­tano as he tried to de­fend his boss dur­ing an ag­gres­sively com­bat­ive ex­change with re­porters Thurs­day. This is the same White House that has pre­vi­ously at­tacked ac­cu­rate news sto­ries that in­cluded the use of un­named sources as fake news.

Spicer’s com­ments drew a swift and rare pub­lic re­buke from British in­tel­li­gence, which called the claim “ut­terly ridicu­lous.” The dust up clearly strained ten­sions be­tween the White House and Amer­ica’s clos­est ally. Mean­while, Fox News de­clined to stand be­hind Napoli­tano’s claims, not­ing Fri­day that its news team has found no ev­i­dence to sup­port what the judge had said. That’s one more case in which the White House has gone look­ing for a life­line with­out suc­cess.

Day by day, the White House de­fense of Trump has been weak­ened, as one af­ter an­other of­fi­cial has walked away from the pres­i­dent’s tweets about Obama. The four lead­ers of the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees have said they have seen no such ev­i­dence. FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey let it be known al­most in­stantly two weeks ago that there was noth­ing to the claim.

Other elected of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Repub­li­cans, have de­manded that the ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­vide ev­i­dence. One Repub­li­can, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), said Fri­day that the pres­i­dent should apol­o­gize to Obama.

In the face of this, Trump had noth­ing to say un­til pressed twice by Ger­man re­porters, to their credit, at Fri­day’s ses­sion with Merkel. Spicer has been thrust into the role of lead­ing the de­fense at the risk of his cred­i­bil­ity. He has sought to re­de­fine the English lan­guage by sug­gest­ing Trump’s words did not mean what the words meant, hop­ing to take some of the sting out of the im­pli­ca­tion in Trump’s tweets that Obama had bro­ken the law by or­der­ing sur­veil­lance on Trump.

This chap­ter could come to an end this week. Comey is sched­uled to tes­tify Monday in an open ses­sion be­fore the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee about Rus­sian hack­ing in the elec­tion and re­lated matters. He will cer­tainly be asked di­rectly about Trump’s al­le­ga­tion against Obama.

The Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion on Capi­tol Hill re­mains open and vi­tally im­por­tant. That the Rus­sians med­dled in the elec­tion is not dis­puted, given the weight of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s find­ings. But much more needs to be known, and at this point, that re­spon­si­bil­ity falls to Congress.

One key as­pect of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion is whether the Trump cam­paign or its close al­lies were in col­lu­sion with the Rus­sians. That there were con­tacts be­tween Trump of­fi­cials and Rus­sians also is not in dis­pute. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Sessions has ac­knowl­edged that he met with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador last fall, for ex­am­ple.

What is in dis­pute is whether those con­tacts were or­di­nary and le­git­i­mate, as the Sessions meet­ing was, or whether there were con­tacts be­tween var­i­ous Trump ad­vis­ers and Rus­sians that amounted to par­tic­i­pa­tion in a scheme to harm Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign and thereby help Trump.

James R. Clap­per Jr., the former direc­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, said ear­lier this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” that, at the time he left of­fice in Jan­uary, he had seen no ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump team and the Rus­sians. Spicer was par­tic­u­larly ir­ri­tated Thurs­day that this fact has got­ten far less at­ten­tion than Trump’s tweets about Obama as he re­peat­edly chided re­porters dur­ing the brief­ing.

If Comey shoots down Trump’s al­le­ga­tion about Obama il­le­gally or­der­ing sur­veil­lance on Trump Tower, how will Trump re­spond? In other words, what kind of proof, ev­i­dence or tes­ti­mony would sat­isfy him that what he said took place did not take place?

Based on his per­for­mance Fri­day, he’s not pre­pared to ac­cept the word of those who should know. If he’s dou­bling down in the face of out­right de­nial from the British in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity about a claim he saw on Fox News, whose tes­ti­mony here would sat­isfy him? And what will his de­fend­ers say then? This week should pro­vide the an­swer to that, at least.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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