This has been a momentous week in American politics.
While President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee held up superbly under long days of confirmation hearings questioning, and the administration and the House GOP leadership furiously worked to assemble votes for the Obamacare replacement bill, the scene at Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing verged on the truly incredible.
Perhaps more than ever before, the scene in that hearing room crystallized the split-screen world in which we all now live.
Many Republicans on the committee focused their questioning on harmful leaks of classified information from within the intelligence community. This is a justifiable area of inquiry.
FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers both confirmed the significant harm that such leaks have done, revealing sensitive sources and methods. They confirmed that an investigation into such leaks was underway.
In sharp contrast, many Democrats on the committee read speeches, following up with “questions” that they knew Mr. Comey and Adm. Rogers could not answer. The questions were solely intended to undermine the political strength of the president.
Please do not misunderstand me: For many months, I have supported an investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere in our election. For the first time, Mr. Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the investigation, revealing that it began last July.
This raises an important question: If an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton during the election was something that could be confirmed, why was a different investigation involving Mr. Trump not made public? Is it because he was not (and perhaps is not) a target of the investigation?
Most strikingly, Mr. Comey specifically testified that President Trump’s Twitter charge that President Obama had “wire tapped” him at Trump Tower was categorically false.
As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, California Republican, hinted Wednesday, there may be more to the story about improper “unmasking” of the identities of Trump transition officials in U.S. intelligence operations in the final days of the Obama administration.
That development notwithstanding, the overwhelming view from government and intelligence sources and published reports was that Mr. Trump’s original allegation was false. The public statement from Mr. Comey, delivered live, on camera, covered by all the cable news networks, put an exclamation point on it, thereby ending all debate.
The overwhelming view from government and intelligence sources and published reports was that Mr. Trump’s charge lacked merit, but the public statement from Director Comey, delivered live, on camera, carried by all the cable news networks, put an exclamation point on it, thereby ending all debate.
The nuance matters here.
Presidents cannot order a so-called FISA wiretap. The language that Mr. Trump used in his unnecessary tweet, likely based on a Breitbart article, was insufficiently specific and needlessly accusatory. It also may have revealed the existence of a criminal investigation, which may create another problem for the president down the line.
Had Mr. Trump learned, through whatever source, that some type of surveillance collected some part of his conversations, he should have launched a private inquiry to determine the truth. He has the ability as president to declassify any information that he believes is in the public interest.
At the end of that investigation, he could have revealed in more than 140 characters whatever the investigation found, and he could have presented actual evidence. Instead, he made a baseless charge on Twitter at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, a charge that created an unnecessary controversy that has consumed official Washington for weeks. The incredible spectacle of an FBI director publicly testifying that the president of the United States had falsely claimed that a predecessor had committed a felony is without historical precedent. The damage to Mr. Trump’s credibility, a by-product of his own recklessness in this matter, has been significant.
What he chooses to do now will matter.
Will he privately apologize to President Obama? Will he admit that he made a mistake? Will he apologize to the public?
The president of the United States must have credibility with the voters — especially in moments of national crisis.
Should Mr. Trump need to inform the country that North Korea poses an urgent threat to the West Coast, or that a terrorist incident may be imminent, or that an economic crisis requires immediate government action, he will need to draw on a reservoir of trust and credibility with the public.
I do not doubt that incidental intelligence collection may have resulted in some number of his conversations ending up in official transcripts. If those transcripts were illegally leaked, those leaks must be prosecuted fully.
But this was an unforced error of the greatest magnitude.
Whether this loss of presidential credibility is temporary or more lasting is now entirely up to Mr. Trump.
— Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran, and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. He is the host of a new national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” produced in partnership with The Washington Times. His podcast may be found at washingtontimes.com/mackonpolitics.