Three explanations for Trump's tweets, none of them good

Trump's White House must convince Americans of the credibility of an investigation into its own actions while avoiding the damage the investigation can cause.

There are, as we see it, three possible explanations for President Donald Trump's accusation that former President Barack Obama ordered the covert wiretapping of Trump Tower during the lead-up to the fall election. It could be true in at least some way — though, to be clear, we find that so implausible as to defy description. It could be false, but Mr. Trump believes it, or it could be false and he knows it. Under none of the scenarios was Mr. Trump's early morning tweetstorm about the matter on Saturday appropriate; in fact, in all cases, it was alarmingly dangerous.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, neatly outlined the stakes of the "what if it's true" possibility. If President Obama tapped candidate Trump's phones for political purposes and without a warrant — which is what the current president intimated by comparing Mr. Obama's supposed actions to Richard Nixon — then it would, indeed eclipse Watergate as the biggest American political scandal of modern times. On the other hand, Mr. Graham said, if the Obama administration obtained a warrant, either because of suspected criminal activity or through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, then "that would be the biggest scandal since Watergate."


That is to say, if there is some kernel of truth to what Mr. Trump said — and all of official Washington, from Mr. Obama to his former director of national intelligence to the director of the FBI says there isn't — then he just made it harder for the government to properly, thoroughly and without interference investigate the possibility of stunningly profound wrongdoing, either by the former president or associates of the current one. Offering up the accusation without any evidence or context, as Mr. Trump did, immediately politicizes a matter that, if true, would need to be handled as apolitically as possible in order for the American people to maintain faith in the government.

The most likely scenario is that what Mr. Trump tweeted is not true but that he has convinced himself that it is. The best anyone can tell, Mr. Trump's accusation is not based on intelligence brought to him by the FBI or any other government agency but on a story published on — the website formerly run by his chief aide, Stephen Bannon — that in turn had its roots in conspiracy-minded chatter on talk radio and the Internet. This follows a pattern of Mr. Trump asserting as true things he saw or read somewhere — think "last night in Sweden" or the claim that 3 million people voted illegally, all of them for Hillary Clinton — with no effort to use the massive information gathering apparatus at his disposal to determine whether the reports are true, or even that he fully understood what they purported to say.

We saw what happened during the Bush administration when officials were willing to twist intelligence to suit their purposes — a war started under false pretenses that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi lives. Where might we land with a president who believes anything from any source that confirms his prejudices or flatters his vanity?

And finally, what if this is a cynically calculated attempt by Mr. Trump to manipulate the public? The president was reportedly furious about last week's scandal involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions' false testimony during his confirmation hearing that he had not had contact with any Russian officials during the campaign — not because Mr. Sessions lied under oath but because he decided to recuse himself from any investigations of Trump-Russia ties. Mr. Trump's tweets made that story all but disappear. The president sent them early Saturday, and the media scrambled to report on them while he headed out to play golf.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump proved himself a master of using Twitter to sow chaos and dominate the news cycle. Whether what he said made sense — either on its own terms or as a matter of campaign strategy — didn't matter so long as it crowded everyone else out of the cable news conversation. Despite the hopes of many that the relatively presidential tenor of his address to Congress last week represented a long-awaited for pivot to a more careful and sober President Trump, he remains the provocateur he has always been.

The difference is that he and his aides now control the massive power of the federal government. What are they doing while we watch for the next tweet?