WASHINGTON — For President Donald Trump, facts often follow fiction.
Since the early days of his campaign, the president has developed a pattern: Make an outrageous claim. Dig in as the criticism rolls. And wait until, eventually, something emerges that can be spun as vindication of the earlier claim.
It happened again this week when Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House intelligence committee, gathered reporters to say he'd seen evidence that communication by members of Trump's transition team, and perhaps Trump himself, had been picked up in legal, “incidental,” intelligence-gathering operations during the campaign.
Trump had initially claimed as “fact” that former President Barack Obama “was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” which would have been illegal.
For Trump, Nunes’ comments were validation. “So that means I'm right,” the president told Time magazine in an interview published Thursday.
During the election, Trump was described as running a “post-truth” campaign where details and sources didn't matter. Back then, he drew outrage when he claimed at an Alabama rally that he'd seen 9/11 television footage and “watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”
Supporters, reporters and critics scoured newspaper and broadcast archives searching for evidence to support Trump's claim. Eventually, a handful of references to unsubstantiated rumors in several New Jersey cities emerged. His aides seized on one: A Washington Post report that law enforcement authorities had “detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.”
There's no evidence those allegations were ever proven. And no footage emerged of “thousands” cheering. But the story was enough for Trump and his supporters to claim he'd been right all along.
“What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right. I'm an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works,” Trump told Time.
“I predicted a lot of things that took a little of bit of time,” he said.
It was the same situation last month at a Florida rally, when the president made an aside about Sweden and its immigrants and refugees.
“You look at what's happening last night in Sweden,” he said. “Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible.”
The comment raised eyebrows because no incident had occurred in Sweden that night. Confused Swedes took to Twitter to mock the president.
Trump defended himself the next day, saying he'd been referring to a story broadcast on Fox News about immigrants and Sweden. But soon he had new justification, when riots broke out in an immigrant-heavy suburb of Stockholm.
“I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about. I was right about that,” Trump said in the interview, brushing off the fact that he was claiming to have referred to something that had yet to actually transpire.
“You can phrase it any way you want. A day later they had a horrible, horrible riot in Sweden and you saw what happened,” he said.
In other cases, Trump has defended unsubstantiated claims he's made by claiming he was only sharing news reports he often derides as “fake.”
Just as he said he shouldn't be held accountable for “re-tweets” of other people's comments, he blamed the press for the allegation that former rival Ted Cruz's father was linked to President John F. Kennedy's assassination and that Obama had directed British intelligence to spy on him.
“I'm just quoting the newspaper, just like I quoted the judge the other day, Judge Napolitano,” he said, referring to the National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, and a Fox News commentator.
In the Time interview, Trump dismissed the suggestion that he was damaging the credibility of his office by repeating unverified claims.
“I'm quoting highly respected people and sources from major television networks,” he said, pointing to the large crowds he'd drawn to recent rallies in Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, as evidence of his standing.
“The country believes me,” he said.
And, he added: “Hey look, in the meantime, I guess, I can't be doing so badly, because I'm president, and you're not. You know.”