Sitting atop that vast apparatus of institutional knowledge, hard-won intelligence and data known as the U.S. government, President Donald Trump forms some of his most contentious opinions from other sources entirely. It could be a pundit's half-remembered comment on TV, a single word in a newspaper headline or the most self-persuasive source of all — his own instinct.
Such visceral information-gathering led Trump to accuse his "bad (or sick)" predecessor, Barack Obama, of tapping his phone.
It helps explain why a rare riot in Sweden, concerning a drug-crime suspect and resulting in no injuries, became a "massive riot, and death" linked to refugee extremism, in Trump's retelling. And why he insists he will someday be proved correct that millions voted illegally in the election that made him president but gave Hillary Clinton more votes.
"I'm a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right," he told Time magazine.
In addition, he said, "I'm quoting highly respected people from highly respected television networks."
The Time interview was about Trump's relationship with the truth. It became a forum for Trump to misstate the truth about various episodes he has misrepresented before.
It also showed how a nugget about surveillance developed into a series of howitzer-scale tweets from the president about being wiretapped by Obama, which the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, said "never happened."
A World in a Headline
On Jan. 19, The New York Times reported on the FBI's investigation into suspected contacts between Russian interests and members of Trump's team, a probe that continues. The online headline read: "Intercepted Russian Communications Part of Inquiry Into Trump Associates." In the next day's print edition, the story's headline read: "Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aide."
Weeks later, columnist Andrew McCarthy of the conservative National Review accused the newspaper of going back and changing "wiretapped" to "intercepted" on the online story to play down the level of snooping by the Obama administration. But the paper never revised its headlines. When the story was first published, it had simply used different words online and in print in its headlines, which is common.
McCarthy later said his accusation was wrong, apologized to the paper and asked his publication to retract the column.
But Trump continued to repeat the error in the Time interview, conducted Wednesday.
"The New York Times had a front-page story, which they actually reduced, they took it, they took it the word wiretapping out of the title, but its first story in the front page of the paper was wiretapping," he said. "They then dropped that headline, and they used another headline without the word wiretap, but they did mean wiretap."
When Is a 'Wiretap' a Wiretap?
Trump now says that when he made his explosive charge about Obama wiretapping him, he did not literally mean wiretapping, but rather surveillance. "When I said wiretapping, it was in quotes," he said. "It is just a good description. But wiretapping was in quotes. What I'm talking about is surveillance."
On a few occasions, he hung quotation marks around the word, apparently recalling the word used in the Times' print headline. Says one Trump tweet: "Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"
But other tweets dropped the quote marks and stated flat out that Obama tapped his phones.
—"I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!"
—"How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"
The president claimed vindication from Nunes' statement this week that U.S. surveillance of foreign entities might have picked up communications involving Trump aides or Trump himself through "incidental" collection. That was known to have happened earlier when Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a target of U.S. surveillance, communicated with Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser when that episode emerged.
But Nunes said Wednesday that Obama did not target Trump or Trump Tower with wiretaps. "That never happened," he said. "That never happened."
Trump disclaims responsibility for talking about provocative assertions in the media that catch his eye. In the Republican primary campaign, he attacked rival Ted Cruz by mentioning a National Enquirer story tying Cruz's father to John Kennedy's assassin. "I didn't say that," Trump told Time. "I was referring to a newspaper."
Similarly, when Trump spokesman Sean Spicer cited a Fox New analyst's claim that British intelligence had helped Obama spy on Trump, the president said: "All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television." Britain was outraged at the claim, and Fox News took the analyst off the air.
But when it comes to Sweden, Trump is sticking with his impression, formed from watching TV, that immigration is spreading violence and extremism in that country. Trump had warned at a rally in Florida last month that something terrible had happened in that country the previous night. Nothing extraordinary took place in Sweden that night; it was merely when Trump heard a Fox commentator talking about Sweden and immigration.
"I make the statement, everyone goes crazy," Trump said in the Time interview. "The next day they have a massive riot, and death, and problems."
Actually, two days later, a riot broke out after police arrested a drug crime suspect. Cars were set on fire and shops looted, but no one was hurt. Attacks in the country related to extremism remain rare; the biggest surprise for many Swedes was that a police officer found it necessary to fire his gun.