There’s a witch-hunt on, apparently.
Wiretaps, government spying, secret sources, lurid accusations, alleged Russian agents lurking in the shadows. The whole Cold War repertoire. And the unfairly targeted victim at the center of all this elaborate drama? The President of the United States.
All that, according to the current occupant of that office.
Out of the blue Saturday morning, President Trump announced to the nation via his preferred communications channel, Twitter, that he had just become aware of nefarious deeds by outgoing President Barack Obama. Trump says Obama ordered the phones at Trump Tower bugged last fall in order to skew the results of the “very sacred election process.”
“This is McCarthyism!” Trump charged. In just 133 characters, he shifted election-rigging speculations from his own campaign’s shady Russian intelligence connections to, in a mixing of historical metaphors, Watergate-style snooping by Obama.
Well, at least that’s what he tried to do.
The “source” apparently circulating in the West Wing to support the president’s tweet is an article from Breitbart News, Steve Bannon’s propaganda outlet. It quotes conspiracy theorist Mark Levin’s unsubstantiated claim from March 2 that a “silent coup” against Trump was being carried out by Obama loyalists. Trump is further backed by British conservative journalist Louise Mensch, who says the FBI got a warrant from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to examine the activities of some members of Trump’s campaign over connections to Russia.
So far, Trump’s charges against his White House predecessor aren’t gaining much traction. There may very well have been some kind of surveillance being carried out by intelligence agencies in October, but the details are still to be seen.
FBI director James Comey (who has election tampering clouds hanging over his own head) has asked the Justice Department to publicly refute Trump’s claim against Obama. Marco Rubio and other Republican luminaries say they have no idea what the president is talking about.
And according to one former NSA lawyer, Obama would not have had the power to issue a wiretap order anyway, as the secretive FISA courts operate independently. Rules adopted in the post-Watergate era legally prevent presidents from doing exactly what Trump is alleging Obama did.
While he may not be finding much success in pinning blame on Obama for the alleged wiretaps so far, Trump was quite successful in achieving something else: distracting everyone from the fact that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself of investigations because he had misled Congress about his own meetings with Russian government officials.
With Russian connections and rumored secret spy links dominating the news scene, it was only a matter of time before somebody brought up McCarthyism. It’s highly ironic, though, that Trump sees himself on the receiving end of what he implies is a McCarthyite frame-up.
Trump should be familiar with McCarthyism. One of his chief mentors early in life was lawyer Roy Cohn, sidekick of Senator Joseph McCarthy who made a name for himself “exposing” supposed Communist infiltration of the U.S. government in the early 1950s.
At press conferences, McCarthy would wave stacks of paper which he claimed listed the names of spies and traitors in the State Department and other key agencies. With evidence comparable to what Trump is now throwing at Obama (i.e. nothing or next to it), McCarthy would haul people before hearings modeled on those that had been held by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. There, they would be publicly interrogated about their political beliefs, past activities and associations, and loyalty to the United States.
The crescendo of the early Cold War Red Scare, McCarthy’s “Un-American” show trials ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans who had never engaged in any of the sordid espionage activities they were charged with. Careers were destroyed, reputations damaged, and families shattered. In some cases, lives were even lost.
After a few years, McCarthy’s sham crusade against communism fell out of favor with a public unconvinced by his reckless claims. His blackmail tactics and false accusations eventually did him in, but not before hundreds or even thousands suffered. His name became synonymous with unfair persecution.
Right by his side through it all was Roy Cohn, chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He built a career helping to send the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair and as a union-busting attorney going after the left-led United Electrical workers (UE). It was he who pushed McCarthy’s search for communists and would later help Nixon get elected president.
Long after McCarthy was gone from the scene, he became the right-hand-man of another titan. In the 1970s, he met Donald Trump, then a New York real estate investor. Cohn defended Trump and his father in court against government charges that they were discriminating against potential African-American and other minority tenants who applied to rent at their properties.
It was the beginning of a long relationship. As the New York Times put it, “For 13 years, the lawyer who had infamously whispered in McCarthy’s ear whispered in Mr. Trump’s.”
The tactics of bluster, accusation, and unsupported claims that Trump learned from Cohn helped get him into the White House. And now, in the way that only Trump can, he has painted himself as the victim of the very –ism that his mentor helped create. It’s the kind of doublethink that few politicians are able to pull off.
The story of the Trump campaign’s Russia links and the extent to which the election process was tampered with still has more “unknowns” than “knowns,” to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld. Who knows whether we are witnessing an outbreak of unfounded Russophobia or the unfolding of perhaps the biggest political scandal in American history?
The continuing stream of leaks suggests something is there, but what that something might be no one can actually say with any certainty yet. What ramifications it all will have for Trump’s presidency is also an open question.
McCarthy and Cohn were both eventually victims of their own success. The Wisconsin Senator was censured by his colleagues and avoided like the plague. Cohn, in 1986, was disbarred as an attorney for misappropriating clients’ funds and holding a dying client’s hand to forge a signature on a will leaving himself as a beneficiary, among other things. He was banned from practicing law.
A bit of karma, perhaps.
Maybe history will repeat itself for McCarthyism’s latest self-described victim.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied Sen. McCarthy headed the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was actually chairman of the Senate’s Government Operations Committee and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.