News analysis: Trump’s tested tactic — Distract, Deceive and Deny

Was the string of Tweets President Donald Trump shot out Saturday morning accusing former President Barack Obama of having “my ‘wires tapped’” an attempt to divert attention away from questions about Russia campaign-meddling and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the investigation into them?

It is not clear what the president’s intentions were. However, the accusations do fit a neat pattern Trump’s behavior has followed where after negative press coverage or criticism from other politicians, he effectively changes the subject with charges against someone else.

Trump did not only make the unsubstantiated charge that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped.’” He slurred the former president in ways that shattered recent presidential protocol. “This is McCarthyism!” he Tweeted. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Trump said.

Trump’s charges consumed the news cycle into Monday. And, indeed, the media spotlight was diverted from the troubles of the attorney general, Michael Flynn and other Trump staff. Was the attention Trump got for the wire-tapping claims any more positive for him? Maybe not, but they included charges against someone else.

This fits a pattern. Amidst a stream of negative attention, Trump created a Big Distraction by issuing a Big Deception (often in the form of what is usually called a conspiracy theory) and then retreats into a Big Denial — denials that he is responsible for the charges or that he should have to back them up. So far in Trump’s political career, this tactic — if it is a conscious tactic and not just the instinctive gyrations of a master-marketer — has worked.

Here are only a few examples of what has become Trump’s signature tactic: Distract, Deceive and Deny:

  • At points in the primary campaign when Senator Ted Cruz appeared to be doing better, Trump made unfounded accusations that Cruz’s father was in the plot to assassinate JFK. “His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said in May to Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.” Trump never produced any proof, offered any apology or, it seems, suffered any tangible damage from the “fake news” accusation.
  • During the general election when the famous Billy Bush tape surfaced of Trump talking crudely about “grabbing” women’s genitals, Trump immediately took a swipe at his opponent’s husband, Bill Clinton. “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” he said. He followed up by falsely accusing the young Hillary Clinton of laughing at a 12-year-old victim of rape.
  • Around Thanksgiving, news organizations were publishing numerous stories about conflicts of interest in the Trump realm. One report that got attention was about Ivanka Trump sitting in a meeting with the president-elect and the Japanese prime minister at a time when she was working on a business deal in Japan. Not great optics. Coincident or not, on Nov. 27 Trump Tweeted, “in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Needless to say, this demonstrably incorrect claim led to a furor that blazed through several news cycles.
  • On Nov. 19, 2016, Trump settled the fraud lawsuit in federal court over Trump University, something he said he would never do. On the same day, the headlines were all about Trump’s tweets trashing the popular musical “Hamilton.”

There are plenty more examples.

With the attack on Obama, Trump may be playing the highest stakes game yet. Not only is he now a sitting president, but he and his organization are facing an FBI investigation, two separate investigations by congressional intelligence committees and calls for a special counsel, new, joint congressional committee or an independent commission. But he is using a proven recipe.

Trump’s accusation absolutely provided the Distraction — no argument there.

Thus far, the accusations are an example of Deceit. There not only is no available evidence that Obama tapped Trump’s “wires,” as he put it, there are flat denials from Obama and the head of National Intelligence at the time.

But Trump has garnered Denial protection. He claims he didn’t make the charges but got them from mainstream media. The media in this case is Breitbart, formerly run by Steve Bannon. Last week, Breitbart summarized “evidence” put forth by right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin:

“In summary: the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign; continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found; then relaxed the NSA rules to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government, virtually ensuring that the information, including the conversations of private citizens, would be leaked to the media.”

Trump’s spokespeople tried to give him further deniability by essentially saying that Trump’s charges can never actually be proved wrong.

“Look, I think he’s going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC News Sunday. “And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we have ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself.”

On Monday Sanders went further. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked her, “Does President Trump accept the FBI director’s denial?” “You know, I don’t think he does, George,” she said. In essence, Trump has said he will not accept denials that the White House ordered illegal wiretaps from the former president, the FBI or intelligence agencies.

But here’s the topper: Over the weekend spokesman Sean Spicer issued an official statement via Twitter, “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.”

So Trump levels the accusations, presents no evidence, dismisses denials from the highest possible authorities and will refuse to address the charges again until there is an investigation into the unsubstantiated charges.

Kevin Madden, a Republican spokesman who had top jobs in Mitt Romney’s 2016 campaign, doubts Trump’s attack on Obama was a piece of well-oiled agitprop.

“It’s hard to see how this distracts attention away from an unfavorable story when it is an unfavorable story in its own right and puts the focus right on the Department of Justice and tensions in the intelligence community,” Madden said. “The White House staff seemed to be caught off guard as well, so it doesn’t seem like it was organized or intentional, either.”

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