Procrastinating on March 21, 2017

Live from the Orange-Haired Baboon Cage: Ed Luce: FBI and NSA chiefs give Trump his worst day yet: "Clash with intelligence community heads for point of no return...

...Virtually every day since Donald Trump took office has yielded a “could not make this up” moment. But Monday’s Congressional hearings — and Mr Trump’s live tweeting on the proceedings — may have killed fiction stone dead. The heads of the FBI and the NSA all but testified that the US commander-in-chief has been plucking conspiracy theories from thin air. As James Comey and Mike Rogers were speaking, Mr Trump was busy discovering things they did not say. “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process,” Mr Trump tweeted. This came out moments after Mr Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

By any measure — and it is a steep yardstick — it was the worst day so far for Mr Trump. In a juxtaposition without precedent in American history, two of the administration’s most senior officials directly contradicted the sitting US president over an inquiry that could lead to criminal indictments of his campaign team. Even if the FBI investigation came to naught, their testimony has fatally undermined Mr Trump’s authority. When asked whether he agreed with the British government’s dismissal of Mr Trump’s allegation that it had spied on him as “nonsense” and “ridiculous”, Admiral Rogers unhesitatingly agreed. To underline: the head of America’s largest intelligence agency backed a foreign power’s scathing characterisation of his own president’s words. Not even Richard Nixon suffered such a direct contradiction.

Where does this leave Mr Trump? First of all it guarantees that the Russia cloud will hang over the Trump administration at least until the various investigations are over — and only then, if they decline to prosecute. They could take months and possibly years to wrap up. All the while, speculation is likely to be fuelled by more leaks, and more embarrassing testimonies. That is without Mr Trump adding new conspiracy theories into the mix. Second, Mr Trump is now fully committed to a false version of events that has been rebutted by the US intelligence agencies, the Republican heads of the congressional intelligence committees and virtually everyone else in a position to know. Mr Trump has had multiple chances to walk away from his outlandish tweets claiming Barack Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. Instead, he has embroiled the governments of two of America’s closest allies, the UK and Germany, in a fabulous tale rather than admit he made a mistake.

The big puzzle is why Mr Trump would wreak such large collateral damage on US alliances and on his administration’s standing over a few casual tweets he could have disowned. The definitive answer may take a long time to emerge. It might be because Mr Trump is trying to divert attention from the fact that his campaign did actively collude with the Kremlin to influence the US election. Such a discovery would be bigger than Watergate and could result in his impeachment and removal from office. Equally, it could be because Mr Trump is psychologically unable to admit making an error even to the extent of sacrificing his administration’s credibility. The latter would be trivial by comparison. It is also consistent with what we already know.

After Monday, we also know this: two months after taking office, Mr Trump has implicitly been branded a fantasist by the heads of America’s largest law enforcement agency and its largest intelligence agency. Yet he shows no signs of changing his tactics. It is surely a matter of time before relations between Mr Trump’s White House and the intelligence community pass the point of no return.