Four days after getting rave reviews for his first address to a Joint Session of Congress in late February, President Donald Trump was stewing at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida. Instead of talking about that speech and his legislative agenda, Mr. Trump found himself aggravated by developments that had led to the recusal of the Attorney General from any federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
The Russia story had been bubbling a bit more that week, but was about to get a giant jolt – not from the Congress or any news story – but directly from the President of the United States via Twitter.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory,” Mr. Trump wrote. “This is McCarthyism!”
It was a major inflection point in the political fight over Russian election meddling, as the White House – and the President – then spent weeks refusing to back down from the charge, even after top intelligence officials repeatedly made clear the Trump claim was not true.
“We do not have any information that supports those tweets,” FBI Director James Comey said at a Congressional hearing later in March, a public assertion that evidently aggravated the President.
Many believe the desire to prove that Mr. Trump was correct about surveillance of his team then led to the involvement of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who dramatically announced he had been provided with new intelligence that showed surveillance of Trump associates during the transition.
That led to even more attention and scrutiny in the news media – and ultimately more controversy for the White House and Republicans in Congress.
Upon further review, Nunes was forced to step aside as the leader of the House probe into the Russia matter, and now finds himself under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for possibly revealing classified information.
In a sense, those four tweets in March by the President about Obama surveillance, spurred hundreds of news stories, dozens of questions at Congressional hearings and White House press briefings, and provided more than enough oxygen to drive the Russia story into April.
This past week, there was a similar turning point, as one tweet and one interview ignited two different firestorms over the Russia probe – once again – all started by the President.
Two days after firing FBI Director James Comey, the President sat for an interview with NBC News – and upended his own team’s argument that Comey had been fired for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email affair.
Instead, the President made it sound like his frustration with Comey over the Russia probe had played a major factor in his decision.
“In one short interview, the President made liars of every single person who mounted a credible defense of the decision,” said talk show host Erick Erickson, who urged Mr. Trump to “Shut the Hell Up” in a Friday post.
“His undisciplined tweets give the public contradictory information, and a sense that he wants to run the country via social media instead of democratic debate,” wrote John Moody at Foxnews.com.
In the NBC interview, Mr. Trump called Comey a “showboat” and said the FBI Director had been grandstanding during his Congressional testimony.
Those remarks quickly rumbled around the halls of Capitol Hill like an earthquake.
“I’m offended at the President’s comments,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Democrats were incensed; they felt like the President has made it clear that he fired Comey for pressing the investigation into ties between Mr. Trump and Moscow – some even charged it amounted to obstruction of justice.
But the President wasn’t done. Washington had been stunned by the firing of Comey on Tuesday, but now, there was one more million pound hammer coming down on Friday morning, as Mr. Trump raised the possibility that he had secretly tape recorded a dinner conversation from January with Comey.
“This is very disturbing,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). “The President is now openly threatening the former FBI Director.”
“First obstruction of an investigation. Now witness intimidation from the highest office,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). “A sad moment for even this White House.”
Democrats wasted no time in demanding the tapes.
“Mr. President, if there are “tapes” relevant to the Comey firing, it’s because you made them and they should be provided to Congress,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
At the afternoon briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was directly asked if the President had taped Comey.
There was no answer.
“Did President Trump record his conversations with former FBI Director Comey?” one reporter asked.
“I’ve talked to the President,” Spicer said, “and the President has nothing further to add on that.”
Instead of a week focused on building momentum for a health care overhaul bill approved by the House, the President had used the power of his office to make this a week that was All About Russia.
Judging by Mr. Trump’s tweets and his interviews – and how they drive the news – that Russia probe might keep going for a while.