When a Wiretap Isn’t a Wiretap

A common saying among Trump supporters and surrogates is that his supporters take him seriously but not literally, while his opponents and the mainstream media take him literally, but not seriously. Take the following tweet:

This is a serious accusation, regardless of whether it was leveled in tweet form, and one that demands something akin to evidence. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer instead tried to claim that Trump didn’t mean wiretapping when he used the term wiretapping, claiming that the quotation marks present mean that the words were not meant to be taken literally.

While the series of tweets on Obama’s alleged misdeeds seems to align with Trump’s use of “alternative facts” on voter fraud and the size of his inauguration crowd, these are more serious. The institution of the presidency is harmed whenever a president lies, but fibbing about crowd size is unlikely to affect Americans’ views of the democratic process generally. However, accusations of bad faith and conspiracy directed at previous heads of states will, and only feed into the troubling, but increasingly common, notion that members of the other party are enemies of the state. Remarks like those expressed in the tweets should remind us of banana republics and other petty dictatorships where the transition of power usually involves substantially less peace and substantially more prison.

Americans should be proud that former President Obama hasn’t responded in a political way, and while Obama’s criticisms of the George W. Bush presidency shouldn’t be equivocated with Trump’s attacks, we should also be proud of the space Bush gave to Obama. But this respect is a norm that has been (mostly) remarkably well-kept by forty three men and not a law. With all of the presidential norms that Trump has discarded, it seems unlikely that he will uphold this one, particularly if he is defeated for reelection in 2020. It will most likely fall to his successor to play the role of elder statement and avoid responding to former President Trump’s tweets.


Republicans in Congress could, if they wanted, do a great deal to uphold American norms and customs by forcefully condemning these kinds of remarks instead of dodging questions about them and pretending they don’t exist. As long as President Trump still feels he has his own party behind him, these sorts of falsehoods will continue. Republicans stand by Trump because they see him as their only opportunity to enact their agenda, but the White House’s lukewarm support for Paul Ryan’s Affordable Care Act replacement demonstrates that depending on Trump to be a reliably conservative political actor is a risky assumption.

Trump supporters may be right about how the President’s base views tweets like the wiretapping remarks. They may not believe President Obama actually orchestrated a campaign to spy on Trump, but are more than happy to see him take shots at the Democratic Party and the political establishment. They are, most likely, not taking him literally. But cumulatively, after a four or eight year presidency, lies, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories communicated directly from the highest office of the land fray at the fabric of our democracy, our notions of facts and truths, and the peaceful transition of power that George Washington solidified centuries ago.



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2 Responses to When a Wiretap Isn’t a Wiretap

  1. morgandick says:

    I am so glad that you decided to tackle this!

    While I appreciated the original outrage showcased on cable news networks regarding Trump’s accusations of the Obama White House wiretapping Trump Tower – this story has seemingly lost it’s original head of steam. I totally recognize that there are other pressing issues – particularly that of the new “TrumpCare” bill in the House – but call me crazy – I think this blasphemous claim should be getting more attention. I will give the House Intel Committee credit for asking the White house for proof, but the deadline for submitting that proof has already been extended. Like you said, accusations like this shake the very core of democracy in the U.S, particularly related to the peaceful transition of power. Per your last paragraph, I too wonder which Republican will be the straw to break the camel’s back. I would like to think that drama could be stirred up when the AHCA goes to the floor (specifically in the Senate). But to be totally honest, the last six months have taught me to stay away from political prophesizing. Good work!

  2. bealpeyton says:

    It is hard to know exactly where to start when a person, or in this instance the President of the United States, makes such a bizarre, unsettling and unsubstantiated claim. Now, Trump has in the past made, at least, dozens of statements that could be considered equally as outlandish and unjustified. What makes this case different, obviously, is the enormous ramifications such a claim would have if it were true: a sitting president abusing his authority to circumvent our legal system and democratic procedures by illegally spying on his potential successor, who just so happens to belong to the opposition party. The key point, and something that I think many people are missing, is the prospect of the justice department, not the Obama administration specifically, believing that there was sufficient evidence to ask a federal judge for a warrant to ”wiretap” Trump affiliated offices. Although we all know that wiretaps and abuses of power are not outside the realm of possibility for administrations, it is perfectly sensible to imagine that the DOJ might investigate Trump’s campaign, businesses or the man himself due to the clear connections that all have with Russia and other foreign governments, such as Turkey. We know that the FBI is already investigating Trump affiliated personnel, so it is quite perplexing to see Trump and his spokespersons drawing attention back to the fact that several government agencies believe there is, to some extent, corrosive or illicit connections between them and Russia. Hopefully none of it is true, and this is just another weird Trump lie that intends to distract us from The American Healthcare Act or the new Muslim Ban. I am sure we will find out soon enough. Great Post!

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