On Saturday mornings at 6:35 a.m., most of us are likely fast asleep, making the most of weekend slumber. Even for moms like me, who have a 2-year-old waking around that time, we are often far too groggy to tell milk from orange juice, let alone form coherent sentences.
But this past Saturday morning at 6:35 a.m. — minutes before the sun had even broken the Atlantic’s horizon — President Donald Trump was wide awake, and tweeting up a storm from his “winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago.
The subject of the president’s early-morning tirade? In case you haven’t heard, he now believes former President Barack Obama tapped his phone.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
In typically Trumpian rhetorical flourish, he went on to tweet that Obama had reached “a new low,” was a “bad (or sick) guy” and compared the episode, naturally, to Watergate.
An Obama administration spokesperson has called this “simply false.” And no one from the White House or the FBI has been able to offer any evidence that this actually happened. In fact, James Clapper, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, flatly denied that the FBI had been issued a FISA court warrant to spy on Trump Tower.
Even Republicans have expressed skepticism over Trump’s conspiratorial claim. Sen. Ben Sasse said the president needed to explain what he meant. Sens. Marco Rubio, Susan Collins and Tom Cotton have also said they’ve seen no evidence of Trump’s allegations, and will await further investigation.
By now, it seems clear that the source of Trump’s bizarre claim was a Breitbart.com story, cobbled together around a months-old BBC story citing unnamed sources and a broadcast segment by conservative radio host Mark Levin, who’d offered his unsubstantiated suspicions of wire-tapping on the Thursday prior to Trump’s tweets. The Breitbart story was circulated around the White House, Trump believed it, and, as he is wont to do, reported it on Twitter as fact.
Mind you, Breitbart is the same website that published a fake electoral map, anti-gay and racist conspiracy theories, and a report that a “1000-man mob” of Syrian Muslims attacked police in Germany and set a church ablaze on New Year’s Eve, none of which actually happened.
But there’s no putting that particular toothpaste back in the tube. If there were any hopes of coercing the conspiracy-loving Trump toward a more discerning and skeptical eye for news, that vanished the second he made Breitbart’s chief architect, Steve Bannon, his close adviser.
But what comes of this explosive allegation? While it seems like we live in a new era where facts, hunches and outright lies occupy the same space, this could actually mark a turning point in the fake news battle the White House has been waging for months.
One possible outcome? The story turns out to be true. If it is in fact proven that Obama himself, as Trump alleged, ordered Trump Tower phones to be wiretapped, this would be a huge and very troubling revelation indeed. The effect would be a total erosion of faith in countless democratic institutions. Trump’s claims of rigged elections and fake news, true or not, would be seriously legitimized.
However, since Trump himself can prove quite easily whether his phones were tapped, this outcome seems unlikely.
If, on the other hand, it turns out Trump is wrong, his fake news narrative could finally take a serious blow. Sure, plenty of his supporters will continue to bang the drum that all negative coverage of Trump is untrue. But others who were considering following the president down his rabbit hole will stay firmly above ground.
It’s one thing to learn that candidate Trump gets his foreign policy from “the shows.” It’s another to learn that President Trump gets his information from conspiracy theorists. Whatever your opinion of the media, you likely find that fairly unsettling.
We’ll know our answer soon enough. But unfortunately, hyper-partisanship will likely obscure the truest truth in all this — that, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, both Trump’s White House and “the deep state” are capable of abusing their power. Let’s keep a watchful, not conspiratorial, eye on both.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.
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