Last Friday opened a new chapter in the weird tale of how this government and its elected leader communicate with the people.
President Donald Trump complained via Twitter at 9:07 a.m.: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.”
The director was James Comey. The “man who told me” seemed to be Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who supported the firing and assigned Robert Mueller as special counsel in the probe of matters involving Russia.
Naturally, many news organizations took the tweet as confirmation of a Washington Post story that the Russia election probe “now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice.”
If Trump’s tweet sounded like a confirmation, his legal team’s initial statement sounded like a non-denial: “The FBI leak of information regarding the president is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal.”
But on Sunday, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow made the rounds of TV network news shows to state: “The president’s not under investigation.”
Sekulow told CBS that he knows Trump hasn’t been targeted “because we’ve received no notice of investigation.”
Can Republicans, Democrats and independents alike all agree on a narrow point — that this is a very strange sequence of public utterances to be coming out of the White House?
Various scenarios could explain it.
One is that Trump was indeed citing the Post report without crediting it as true — but for whatever reason, didn’t clarify that during or right after the tweet.
Maybe it’s a matter of word selection.
“Target” is an interesting term. Prosecutors sometimes send “target letters” informing a person of being the subject of a criminal investigation. Apparently Trump hasn’t received one.
“Investigation” is another interesting word that sometimes gets distinguished from “review.”
It would defy logic to suggest that probers are not at least looking at, examining, discussing or reviewing the famous Trump meeting with since-fired FBI Director James Comey.
Comey swears Trump asked, or directed, or hinted that he should drop a potential case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Maybe Trump’s Friday tweet can be reconciled with his lawyer’s Sunday statements if the president has become convinced he is not for the moment in the crosshairs of the special Russia counsel.
Maybe he thought he was a target based on the Post story — but then somehow became assured he was not.
Maybe the probe hasn’t reached a level where Trump could be called a “target” — or the inquiry be called an “investigation” of him.
Maybe this “examination” of whether Trump “obstructed justice” is cursory, at least at this point.
Maybe it never reaches that point. Or maybe it has.
We just don’t know yet.
On Thursday night, Rosenstein issued a cryptic statement warning Americans to exercise caution before believing news stories attributed to anonymous sources from unnamed agencies or governments.
Clearly, however, Rosenstein was in no position to offer advice to Americans trying to judge the veracity or meaning of stories that come directly from the president and his aides.
Trump cashed in on Ronald Reagan’s slogan “Make America great again.” But on this subject, the 45th president has yet to earn the nickname the “great communicator.”