Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
It was the latest iteration of ‘Donald Trump’s war on Washington’. The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees concluded yesterday that there was no evidence that Donald Trump’s phones were bugged during the 2016 campaign, after five hours of testimony from the heads of the FBI and NSA. Director James Comey dealt a second blow in confirming publicly that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and associates with Russia. The alleged involvement of our own GCHQ intelligence proves the fragility of international allegiances in this presidency.
The allegations were made by Trump on 4th March, when the President appeared under fire and in need of shifting the narrative. Since then, the mechanisms of Washington have kicked into gear. The committee hearings to investigate the claims have called on high-profile witnesses, whose conclusions are drawn from a solid evidence base. It is Washington at its most serious and the very antithesis of the Twitter presidency, signed @realdonaldtrump.
The President was wrong – so what?
Political legacies are often formed by accident. Michael Gove probably did not expect to symbolise a movement when he said “People in this country have had enough of experts”. Nor did Kellyanne Conway mean to define the loose attitude of this White House to sound reasoning when she said President Trump had presented “alternative facts” that ran contrary to accepted wisdom.
Epitomised by the wiretapping allegations, this is an ‘alternative facts’ presidency in which loyal White House aides are sent out to blindly defend what on the face of it seems indefensible. On that basis, the rulings across two bipartisan committees that scorched the wiretapping allegations matter very little. Their conclusions could even be obsolete. For the very suggestion that this even took place from the President’s Twitter account (with 179,000 cumulative re-tweets) and Trump’s rejection of the ruling as “FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it” has a profound effect. It chips further away at established political institutions in Washington and trust in the functions of democracy most likely to poke holes in the president’s administration. In the most extreme circumstance, if the President is to be proven correct, the FBI Director will have had to lie on live television and in front of a congressional committee. Faithful supporters will believe just that.
Chances for the White House to pivot
As with any new presidency, the advantage of a sticky situation is the opportunity to do something fresh to shift attention. This week alone, a legislative focus on healthcare, the rumoured publication of up to five executive orders on trade, and Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch are major chances for the White House to move the conversation away from wiretapping.
Back on more comfortable campaign ground, the President set about reversing a damaging few days on the Hill with a rousing rally in Kentucky. It served as yet another reminder of Trump’s popularity amongst the party base, putting 600 miles of physical distance between himself and the Washington committees that told the nation he was wrong. But amongst the wider population, the President is fighting an uphill battle for American support, as his job approval rating sank to 37 per cent in a Gallup poll released on Monday.
Following a familiar pattern, the wiretapping allegation is another example of the President’s Twitter fingers moving the political focus away from more serious issues that ought to be gripping Washington, starting with healthcare.
Congressional Republicans are in the process of horse-trading as a vote is brought to the House on the American Health Care Act. To its credit, in a marked shift from the Obama administration this White House appears more willing to alter policy having consulted its members on the Hill. A workable healthcare Bill designed by rank and file Republicans and owned reputationally by President Trump could appease enough dissidents to pass through both chambers. But with endless distractions casually tweeted first thing in the morning by the President, the political focus is elsewhere.
The White House’s stubbornness following the testimonies on Capitol Hill this week proves President Trump doesn’t care about the clear and evident fact that he was wrong on wiretapping. But failing to deliver Trumpcare will have a material impact on his presidency. As well as providing Americans with workable healthcare plans, that is something he should care deeply about.