Trump risks becoming a political Br'er Rabbit

1:33 pm on 7 March 2017

By Phil Smith* @piripismith

Opinion - They say that in politics it's not the mistake that kills you, it's the cover up. It's more complicated than that.

President Donald Trump returns to the White House after a weekend at his Palm Beach, Florida.

President Donald Trump returning to the White House after a weekend at Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: AFP

Admitting an error generally kills the story dead, anything short of that is playing with fire. If the mistake is too big to admit to, you're screwed either way.

We learned this week from the leakiest little White House in the west that on Friday Donald Trump had a tantrum about Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from any investigation into Russian involvement in the recent US election. Sessions' crime was not allegedly perjuring himself in his Senate confirmation hearing; it wasn't even embarrassing Trump, who only hours earlier had said Sessions would stay firm. His crime was breaking the cardinal Trump rule - never back down.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador. Photo: AFP

Interestingly, perjury or no, Sessions cannot be prosecuted for lying at his hearing. As a sitting Senator, he had absolute privilege for statements in the Senate.

Never back down is a rule that worked on the campaign trail but it's making Trump's presidency into an Uncle Remus story. The more angrily Trump tries to extricate himself from accusations of Russian entanglement, the more enraged he becomes, and the more enmeshed he becomes.

Early Saturday morning, at his beachside mansion in Florida, Trump seems to have read a story on Breitbart, a hard-right-wing website with a penchant for conspiracy theories. Cue a Twitter tirade claiming that Obama ordered a wiretap on him in October.

Some pundits claim this was intended as a distraction to the Russia story. If so, Trump's plan was to replace the headline 'Putin's Potus?' with 'Paranoid Potus is Poco Loco'; a frightening peek into the mind of the most powerful man on earth.

The administration is now distracting us from that distraction with the revised anti-Islamic travel ban. This revised ban has reportedly been ready for a week and sitting waiting for the right moment to be released.

I'm not sure the frenzied accusations were intended as a distraction. Driven by a fixation on Obama and feeling persecuted, Donald Trump never considered the underlying message.

Obama has strongly denied requesting surveillance on any domestic US citizen, though he did not say the intelligence community hasn't been watching Trump. FBI director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to call Trump out, something unprecedented.

Here's the underlying problem for Trump. Any such surveillance by a federal agency would require a warrant signed by a federal judge who was convinced there was 'probable cause' that the person being tapped was engaged in criminal activity.

Even worse, if surveillance was based on suspicions about Russia, the warrant would come under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). A FISA warrant for a citizen would require a federal judge to find probable cause that the target of the phone tap was an "agent of a foreign power".

Aren't you glad you're not on Trump's PR staff? "Are you sure you want to draw that to everyone's attention Mr President? Yes I know you never back down but are you really sure you want to demand it's true, and demand the Senate investigate it?"

The Nixon White House took five years to begin falling apart at the seams. This administration is already in utter turmoil, riven with factions and at a loss to manage three good news days without a self-inflicted crisis. It's no wonder though; they are trying to corral a paranoid solipsist who insists on flailing at phantoms, and as a result just gets himself stuck deeper and deeper into the mire.

* Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

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