WASHINGTON — Five months into Donald Trump's administration, only the unwise doubt the president's intelligence.
Just ask former FBI Director James Comey, who, in addition to being fired by Trump, has been redefined by the president as a dishonest leaker who might have lied were it not for nonexistent tapes of their conversations.
It takes a craven sort of cunning to pull that one off. One day, Comey, a man admired for his brilliance and integrity, is investigating possible collusion in the 2016 presidential race between Russia and the Trump campaign. The next, he's watching his professional life unravel on television and reading that he's not to be trusted.
Trump didn't stop at upending the man's career, cutting short his FBI directorship by six years. He next tweeted that Comey better hope there were no "tapes" (his quotation marks) of their private conversation that subsequently became the focal point of congressional investigations.
There were tapes?!
Of course, there were no tapes. Did anyone really think there were? Well, yes, there could have been tapes — just as there could have been a legitimate Trump University. To the credulous goes the nation.
But no president ever admits to tapes, at least not until a subpoena becomes inevitable. Or, as in this case, when the House Intelligence Committee demands such tapes, if they exist.
They don't, Trump finally tweeted after more than a month of suspense-building hedging. But caveat trumptor: The president says he doesn't personally have any recordings of the conversation, but who knows, what with all the surveillance around these days?
The media, alas, had no choice but to entertain the possibility that there were tapes. Like it or not, there's no ignoring a president's statements. Thus, television anchors and pundit panels have devoted hundreds of hours to examining the what, ifs and buts of the illusory tapes: What would it mean if they existed? What would it mean if they didn't? Was Trump bluffing? Was he trying to intimidate Comey?
No doubt enjoying the scramble to his latest manufactured distraction, Trump chided reporters: "You're going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer." Perhaps. But then, life with Trump is a roller coaster of anticlimaxes.
Trump supporters, I suspect, knew all along that he was bluffing. They're in on the joke, which is actually a Southern tradition — goofing on the media, saying outrageous stuff for the pleasure of watching reporters write it down. Who cares what reporters think, anyway, goes the thinking.
To them, Trump was taunting Comey the way they wish they could, giving him the what-for. You think you're so tall. Toying with media and other elites has become the sport of both "commoners" and the king these days. When Trump isn't playing king, he's happy to be the court jester. With a shrug of his shoulders and a smirkish smile, he conveys "whatever."
We tend to forget, too, that Trump is a professional bluffer. We keep thinking he's the president of the United States. That's his title, but his identity is Donald J. Trump, television star, celebrity wheeler-dealer, a man who grabs what he wants. Everything he says or does should first be considered in this context.
Poor Comey. Burdened with seriousness, he wore a black tie to a circus.
When he testified earlier this month before the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying that Trump suggested that he drop his investigation of Michael Flynn, that he wrote memos about his interactions and leaked them to the press because he feared Trump might lie about them — he was obviously telling the truth.
Otherwise, why admit to the leak — otherwise known as discreet information-sharing, which, you may as well know, makes the world go 'round. It also occurred post-firing and after Trump's tweet about the tapes.
Yet, Trump, who denies everything, has managed to create a fictional narrative that not only justifies his dangling bluff but gilds it as a moral victory: He tweeted about tapes to make sure "leaker" Comey would be honest when he testified.
It takes a certain kind of intelligence to spin a yarn so counterintuitive and defiantly false that some people will believe it, anyway. Alternatively, Trump could be just as confused as he hopes others will be.