Trump's unhinged tirade shouldn't distract from the real story

Comey 'incredulous' over Trump wiretap claim
Comey 'incredulous' over Trump wiretap claim

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Comey 'incredulous' over Trump wiretap claim 02:18

Story highlights

  • Jen Psaki calls Trump's wiretap accusation against Obama ridiculous
  • Psaki: It shouldn't discourage pursuit of question of ties between Trump team, Russians

Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and spring fellow at the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, served as the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. Follow her: @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The honeymoon is over.

That isn't a reference to the relationship between my former boss, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. The warmth of that relationship at any point has been overplayed. When he met with Trump, then the President-elect, Obama was doing what every President should do -- which is to conduct an orderly and peaceful transition. And only one person in this relationship is lobbing attacks at the other one right now.
The recent unhinged and uninformed tirade by the sitting President against the former President shouldn't come as a big surprise. Trump is the same guy who has been peddling conspiracy theories about everything from crowd sizes to whether or not Obama was born in the United States for years.
    Jen Psaki
    In the months between the election and the inauguration, we even thought through the kinds of attacks that might come from the new President, whether it was the more predictable effort to dismantle environmental protections through executive actions or more sinister steps to call for investigations into former Obama administration officials.
    But what's especially worrying now is that the effort to distract with calls for investigations, whether internal, external or involving separate branches of government, seems to be working at least to muddy the waters.
    In the case of the Saturday morning tweetstorm this weekend, Trump accused Obama of ordering a wiretap of his phones during the campaign. And then his team followed by calling for an investigation.
    There are a few head-scratching problems with this accusation:
    First, no president can order a wiretap of a private citizen. That is a step only taken by the Department of Justice after being granted a warrant by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court because there is sufficient evidence that an individual may be a foreign agent or may have engaged in criminal activity. That's a decision made by the Justice Department and a federal judge. Not the White House. Not the president.
    Second, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed this weekend that "there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the President, the President-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign."
    End of story. Or it should be.
    Instead we are continuing to debate the merits of an investigation Trump's team has called for about an accusation he made and has produced no evidence to support -- that has been denied on the record by not just a spokesman for Obama but the former director of national intelligence.
    Imagine for a moment that in March 2009, Obama had accused President George W. Bush of ordering the Justice Department to spy on him during the campaign. Imagine it was an accusation promoted by a publication his chief strategist recently ran. And then without presenting any evidence, the White House press secretary had followed this up with a call for an investigation into the illegal wiretapping by the Bush administration of Obama. And then refused to answer more questions. Imagine the uproar.
    And this behavior by the Trump administration is part of a pattern.
    In the days after news broke on CNN and in The New York Times about reported contacts between campaign aides Paul Manafort and Carter Page with the Russian government, and discussions between national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador about sanctions, Trump made news in his press conference by calling for the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the leaks.
    In the days following Flynn's resignation, a story leaked from the White House about Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, cracking down on leaks by surprising his team with phone checks in his office.
    In both cases, the public debate turned to a focus on the leaks investigation and the tactics used to crack down on leakers instead of the issue at hand: The reported contacts and possible collusion between officials close to the sitting President and Russian officials.
    The leaks are not the story. These calls for investigations are creating the perception of a false equivalency between active investigations about the ties between the Trump team and the Russians during the campaign, and the conspiracy theory-driven tweetstorm by the sitting President.
    This is an attempt to distract from the real story. Period.
    Some argue that Trump calling for the investigation actually shines a light on the possibility that there was enough evidence to warrant a wiretap. But that requires an additional nuanced level of explanation that is not always easy to articulate in this environment.
    This art of distraction is not a new tactic. Ironically the Russians mastered it. Almost no one is better at spreading propaganda and moving public opinion through the distribution of false information than President Vladimir Putin. As the January report on the Russia hacking revealed, the action was not only directed by the top levels in Putin's empire, but the effort to influence the outcome of the election did not stop at cyber intrusions. The propaganda war was part of the effort.
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    During the 2016 campaign, the first round of John Podesta's emails were released by WikiLeaks within hours of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape when Trump was recorded making a lewd reference to grabbing a woman's body part. Instead of delving into whether there were more tapes, what the comments meant and what it said about the Republican nominee for the presidency, some of the focus started to turn to searching through the content of Podesta's emails.
    Given what we know about Donald Trump's worldview, his simply calling for an investigation should not be cause for a five-alarm fire anymore.
    At a minimum, the honeymoon period of giving Trump the benefit of the doubt on his calls for investigations should be over.