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Spying on Trump: the Arrogance of Certainty Endures

I remember March 4, 2017 very well. I had just finished having lunch with a colleague and after we parted ways, I reached for my phone, which I had ignored during our lengthy encounter so as not to be impolite. In that time, it had ‘blown up’ as they say, with news snippets.

President Trump had tweeted (it seems like a lifetime ago when Twitter respected free speech, doesn’t it?) the following: “Terrible! Just found out Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

What followed from the usual media chorus was an arrogance of certainty that Trump’s claim must be false, that there’s no way in the world President Obama would ever do such a thing, and that Trump is evidently out of his mind. In fact, the latter speculation drew oodles of new rumors that Trump’s Cabinet members were discussing invoking the 25th Amendment to have Trump removed from office because, apparently, he’d gone bonkers.

Despite being a charismatic speaker, Trump, whether or not by design, has never been a particularly clear messenger. He often chooses the path of most resistance. In messages that can be perceived in various ways, Trump routinely opts to deliver the most outrageous version.

To that end, Trump’s tweet does conjure a scenario whereby Obama calls then-FBI Director James Comey and says: “Jim? This is the president. I’d like you to tap the phones at Trump Tower.” For those who think the United States is no different than a banana republic where the dictator uses government muscle to harass and ultimately destroy his opposition, such a possibility is not only feasible, but likely. Most folks, though, who understand how our country works, and who don’t have a woefully inaccurate gauge of Obama’s character, consider it theoretically possible but highly improbable.

A more believable scenario – and what actually happened – is that the FBI did in fact spy on the Trump campaign, but apparently as part of an investigation into certain individuals, not in an effort to foil the GOP nominee’s bid to win the White House. Whatever the FBI’s motives, the Obama administration insisted that it was the president’s “cardinal rule” never to personally interfere in an investigation, and certainly never to order a wiretap. My gut tells me that’s true, but as with any other issue, I could be wrong.

However, very importantly, Trump’s sloppy description of Obama spying on him was not fabricated out of thin air, because the FBI technically did surveil his organization.

Now, a new blistering report has surfaced that people loyal to Hillary Clinton with or without her knowledge spied on Trump not only while he was a private citizen, but also when he was president by infiltrating White House databases. The report came from John Durham, who was appointed by the Trump administration, and retained by the Biden administration, as special counsel to the Department of Justice.

Durham’s report may turn out to be wrong, but just as there are prominent mainstream analysts who dismiss it as tenuous, others of equal stature hold the exact opposite view.

The point is not whether Trump really was spied on, and if so, to what extent it was illegal. Rather, it’s about the arrogance of certainty that he was – or wasn’t.

Part of the narrative against Trump, which I’ve always found particularly ridiculous, was that he was in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, either because Putin financially made it worth Trump’s while, or because he had compromising photos of Trump with Russian prostitutes and was holding them over Trump’s head as blackmail.

The latter fixation has no more credible basis than washerwoman gossip. The former, worse yet, doesn’t even make logical sense. Here’s why: Trump loves himself, as few would argue. But he also loves the United States, in some ways as a little boy might. He looks at the world in terms of winning and losing, and his childhood recollection of America is that – much like Batman, Superman, or the Lone Ranger – it always won. That we beat the British, the Confederacy, the Germans, the Japanese, and in the Cold War, the Russians, and so we need to go back to winning all the time, like we used to.
But what happens if Trump’s love of self and love of country conflict? Well, suppose that Trump granted special favors to a rather innocuous nation, say, Sweden, in exchange for their financing a new chain of Trump casino hotels throughout their country once he left office. That would be an illegal abuse of Trump’s presidential powers, and I’m not saying he’d do such a thing, but if he were to rationalize “what’s wrong with that? I’m helping myself, but I’m not hurting the United States, because Sweden is our friend anyway” I don’t see it as absurdly impossible.
But for Trump to help Russia? That’s like a lifelong Batman fan helping the Joker or the Riddler.

Even more bizarre is the notion that Putin would have wanted Trump as president instead of Hillary. Of course, to those who deem Trump’s corruptibility indisputable and are sure he wouldn’t rule out helping our longtime Cold War adversary, it makes sense: Putin wanted a president he could control.

But suppose Trump really wouldn’t sell out the United States to Russia. In that case, it would be utterly illogical for Putin, a chest-thumping alpha male, to prefer another alpha male in the White House – one with an even bigger chest – than a woman, whom in his own alpha male mind couldn’t possibly be as smart, or as strong.

Again, this is all conjecture. But to dismiss it as categorically false is arrogant certainty’s tragic flaw.

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