Was it something about Trump hacking Obama’s phone? Or was it something about Russia wiretapping the CIA? It would be easy to forgive someone for not quite remembering the details (few as there may be) of the infinite scandals of the last few weeks. The rapid-fire ping pong game that seems to be playing out daily between the Trump administration, the political class and the media has made it nearly impossible for those not currently feeding on a steady drip of nonstop news, tweets and punditry to keep up. However, while it may be open season for journalists and analysts to spend each day scrutinizing and commentating on the minute-to-minute action there is a more nefarious strategy at work and it’s swimming just beneath the surface.
It’s hard to say whether or not the tweet storm that kicked off the Obama wiretapping “scandal” was a stroke of brilliant strategy or the insane morning rants of a senior citizen whose tanning bed use has baked the better half of his brain into banana bread; but either way on Saturday morning Trump released a steady stream of conspiratorial tweets in his signature self-assured tone. The media took the bait immediately and by the time the morning talk shows began there was already a full investigation underway – not into Obama or his alleged wiretapping but into the tweets. The media has evolved around Donald Trump in the last year and are now well enough aware that anything he says must first be analyzed as its own story prior to the content of the statement being evaluated.
What became rapidly apparent was that while Trump’s claims may have been dramatic, bombastic and a mouthwatering piece of political theater, there wasn’t much to substantiate them. As best anyone could tell, Trump had read a recent article on Breitbart that vaguely alluded to the possibility that Obama may have been capable of ordering a wiretap on Trump Tower and the President simply ran with it.
That’s where this story actually begins. Trump’s claims about Obama wiretapping him are presumably bullshit and certifiably irrelevant. What is relevant here is the fact that Trump has now succeeded in manufacturing a scandal that doesn’t actually exist. The past week has seen the media heavily report, first on the claims themselves, then on the lack of evidence about the claims and now on the lack of support or communication from the Trump administration. With less than 140 characters Trump has managed to paralyze the media for almost a full week.
This is the growing danger between American sensationalist journalism and what is irrefutably the most sensationalist President the United States has ever had. In a matter of days we have seamlessly washed a very real scandal about multiple high-ranking staff members from the Trump administration having ongoing communications with Russian officials during his presidential campaign with a goose chase based on a Tweet.
The overwhelming, often deafening amount of both information and content that Trump and his administration are capable of generating on a daily basis has pushed our media infrastructure to the brink. Factor that along with the partisan bodies actively trying to distort these stories and twist them into narrative vehicles and you create an environment that’s nearly impossible to properly filter and manage.
Trump’s team is not unaware of the opportunities that this presents for them either. While The Donald himself may be one errant comment or piece of negative gossip away from a wild-eyed twitter rant his advisors are adept at using the storms he creates to their advantage. Shortly after making his baseless claims about Obama Trump requested that the FBI investigation into his administration’s connections with Russia also include a probe into the possibility of illegal wiretapping. There’s no logic to this request nor are the two “scandals” related but in forcibly making this connection Trump can use his own rampant lies to delegitimize the serious investigation into his administration’s communications with Russia.
It’s in these moments that one could reasonably speculate about the strategy and calculations behind Trump’s seemingly erratic behavior. Are the media and political institutions of the United States being outsmarted by a foe more clever and nimble than they could possibly imagine? Or are we trying to see patterns and meaning in an orange Mr Magoo as he bumbles around the White House in his bathrobe? It’s almost certainly the latter but knowing that has not stopped the country’s media and journalism outfits from grinding to a multi-day halt to observe the spectacle.
Since his comments Trump has spent the last six days completely silent on the topic of Obama’s alleged wiretapping. This is probably due to the fact that he really has nothing else to say. He knows there’s no evidence of his claims and he knows he can’t prove them. Furthering the narrative or creating additional drama only risks exposing himself. Yet in the brief chaos, Trump has created a meaningful distraction that will lurk, nag and fester for weeks and months to come. He is steadily clogging the pipes of information that America relies upon to filter and verify our news and in doing so he’s insulating himself from real, factual reporting.
The longer Trump is in office the more we can expect to see this kind of behavior. It’s a staple of the Trump playbook and one that he’s thoroughly mastered from his time as a “business man” and on the campaign trail. Journalists and media outfits in the US desperately need to control their baser instincts when it comes to Trump’s brand of political theater or we may soon find ourselves unable to discern fact from fiction.