When the fringe occupies the White House

The Observer editorial board

Donald Trump, here in November, has accused then-president Barack Obama of “tapping my phones” in October.
Donald Trump, here in November, has accused then-president Barack Obama of “tapping my phones” in October. TNS

Until now, the best way to deal with America’s lunatic fringe was to keep it there – on the fringe. 9/11 truthers? Sandy Hook hoaxers? Just roll your eyes, feel sorry that some people are suckers for conspiracy, and try to ignore it.

But what happens when the lunacy comes from the White House?

Americans got another disturbing glimpse of its birther/denier/truther president this weekend. Donald Trump, in a three-tweet rant Saturday, accused former president Barack Obama of “tapping my phones” at Trump Tower in October. On Sunday, the president doubled down on the nuttiness by calling for Congress to investigate whether Obama abused the power of federal law enforcement agencies.

Never mind that Trump had zero evidence to back up his accusation, just unfounded claims by Breitbart News and conservative talk show hosts that secret warrants were issued authorizing the taps. Never mind that he chooses to believe those outlets over the denials of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the FBI, who would know about all wiretaps.

The FBI or Justice Department may very well have requested surveillance on someone else as part of investigating Russian ties to the election. But, as Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said Saturday: “A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.”

It’s telling – and troubling – that Trump’s tweets show a glib assumption that illegal wiretapping of a presidential candidate is something a sitting president might do. It’s also concerning that Trump has once again widened the fissure between his office and the intelligence community, which needs to trust that it can freely provide the president with critical information about urgent global affairs.

What’s additionally disturbing is that this latest trip down Crazy Lane is yet another demolition of presidential norms, another stain on the office Trump occupies. That the leader of our country so casually accuses his predecessor of breaking the law, with no evidence to back it up, is appalling. That most Republicans are silent about it is a tragedy.

The strongest defense against fiction, however, has always been the truth, and Trump’s latest foot-stomping oddly could move us in that direction. Most Americans already are concerned about contacts between Russians and Trump campaign associates. Now, with Trump’s attempts to give his wild wiretapping claim equal footing with the Russia affair, Congress has seemingly little option but to at least appoint a special bipartisan committee to examine everything related to Russia and the election. Trump, meanwhile, should produce actual evidence to back up his accusation.

We believe an independent special prosecutor would be the better route toward separating truth from conspiracy. Not that we have confidence our president will accept any truth he doesn’t like. How far toward the fringe will Congress let him take the presidency – and our country?