You can tell a lot about political leaders by how they act when they make a mistake or say something that is not true. Do they have the strength of character, the humility and the basic honesty to admit their mistake? Or do they launch into a set of juke moves, smoke screens and dance steps?
Two weeks ago, President Trump accused former President Obama of “tapping” his phone at Trump Tower. This wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, conspiracy-fueled bombast, like the one a few months ago when Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because millions of illegal voters had supported her.
This is far more serious. It was a direct attack on a former president who, regardless of your political persuasion, served the country honorably for eight years, seemed to be a solid family guy and left without major scandal. And it was essentially accusing that man of breaking the law.
What makes Trump’s claims suspicious is the timing of the accusation – 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday – and the reality of how surveillance actually happens in this country.
There are only three possible explanations for Trump’s charge. One is that Obama intentionally violated the law to scuttle the Trump campaign, bypassing the courts, the FBI and other intelligence agencies. That would be a scandal on the order of President Nixon’s Watergate.
The second is that law enforcement or intelligence agencies legally secured a warrant to bug Trump’s offices. If that’s true, it could only have happened if there were a criminal investigation of the Trump campaign underway, or if they were suspected of operating as agents of a foreign government.
And the third is that Trump is wrong and there never was any surveillance at all.
Americans will need to come to their own conclusions on this, using their best, unbiased judgment. They can start by looking at who is making the accusation. Trump has been monitored by virtually every fact-checking organization in the country for well over a year. He’s been found to thrive in a world of outrageous claims and unsubstantiated attacks. Obama denies ever ordering the bugging of any American.
It doesn’t seem like a tough call.
If we rule out Obama breaking the law, the next best scenario for Trump is that he made a mistake or, as some might say, he lied. Mistakes happen. We’re all human, and we’ve all made mistakes. I’ve made more than most, I suppose.
The key for a political leader, or anyone, for that matter, is what you do after you’ve misrepresented facts or unfairly accused someone. The honorable response is to admit your mistake, apologize to anyone you’ve done injury to and learn from the experience. We’re a forgiving people, and in most cases when someone admits an error and asks for forgiveness, we accept it and move on.
The dishonorable response is to deny the mistake, muddy the waters, shift the blame and change the topic.
Here’s what Trump has done over the last two weeks, since tweeting that Obama’s action was like “Watergate” or “McCarthyism.”
• Although he’s been pressed daily to provide proof of his claim, he has produced nothing.
• Trump asked the congressional committees investigating Russia’s influence on the election to give his claims equal time. Apparently now whenever Trump misspeaks, Congress is supposed to stop everything to prove him wrong.
• His press secretary argued that when Trump said Obama had “tapped his phones,” he didn’t really mean Obama and he didn’t necessarily mean actually tapping, or even, for that matter, phones.
• Other aides insinuated that perhaps Obama had used other devices to spy on Trump – like microwave ovens.
In what will come as a shock to many, Trump is not going to own up to his mistakes. He never does. He’ll just shift the blame and move on. The problem is that when you’re president of the Unites States, your words matter. And they don’t go away.
What should we do as citizens? Demand the facts. Demand an apology. And never let this kind of scurrilous attack – which is truly reminiscent of McCarthyism – become an accepted part of America’s democracy.
Accusing former leaders and political opponents of nefarious crimes is what happens in places like Russia and banana republics. If we let it take root here without any consequences, it will only get worse.
Here’s the right thing to do, Mr. President. Get on the phone with Obama and apologize. Then, swear off Twitter before you insult someone who doesn’t love this country and who can do us real harm.
Alan Caron is the owner of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be reached at: