The Lowlife Who Invent & Amplify the Crazy Conspiracies
Donald Trump once declared: “I alone can fix it.” He never made the claim: “I alone can break it.” When it comes to softening up institutions, eroding norms and chipping away at the foundations of democracy, it takes a village. While the president has led the way in stirring outrage, he is aided and abetted by an entire ecosystem of activists, officials, politicians, pundits and social media stars. Far from being a lone voice screaming into the void, Trump can be confident that every baseless conspiracy theory he generates will be echoed, endorsed and enlarged – whatever the cost to the rule of law. “There’s no idea too lunatic or extreme that Trump cannot find someone to amplify them for him,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative broadcaster and journalist. “This is the new political normal. It’s no wonder that Trump is not deterred from saying crazy things, because he knows there will always be someone willing to go out there and repeat them.”
A case in point is the fallout from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump has spent two years throwing out words like “coup”, “deep state”, “hoax”, “treason” and “witch-hunt” with unnerving insouciance. When Mueller’s report emerged last month, Trump falsely claimed it totally cleared him of collusion and obstructing justice. There duly came a chorus of support, from Republicans in Congress to the extreme fringes of the web. Emboldened, Trump is going further. He alleges without evidence that the FBI committed treason, spied on his election campaign and tried to rob him of victory. Last week, he gave the attorney general, William Barr, authority to declassify information about the origins of the investigation. Again, there is enthusiastic backing from cheerleaders who holler “investigate the investigators” and suggest that Barack Obama, not Trump, should be on trial. Among them is Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser turned rightwing pundit. “The Kraken has been unleashed,” he declared in a beyond-parody video. “Watch, in the next two days, the rats, the hyenas, start to eat each other. Clapper, Brennan, Lynch, even Obama. The fun and games have begun!”
Among the targets of the backlash is Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who helped lead the investigation and exchanged anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 election with the FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was in a relationship. Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team following the discovery of the texts and later fired from the FBI. Page also left the bureau. On the same night Gorka hailed the Kraken, the former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski went on Fox Business. He sought to blame the investigation on the former vice-president Joe Biden, who may be Trump’s opponent at the polls next year. He also predicted that in March or April next year Strzok and Page, along with the former FBI director James Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe, “will be on trial for the crimes they committed against the fourth amendment and against this president”. Two days later, this far-out narrative went mainstream. Liz Cheney, a member of the House Republican leadership, appeared on ABC, one of America’s major TV networks.
It was just one example of the way in which, critics say, Trump’s allies recycle his most outlandish claims, spread conspiracy theories and slowly but surely wear down institutions so he can one day shatter them. The reward is publicity, pundit work and presidential attention and retweets. The result for the country could yet prove to be an “imperial presidency”. Sykes, author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, added: “Liz Cheney is a member of the House leadership, a daughter of the former vice-president, and for her to be using the word ‘treason’ about FBI investigators is stunning – and yet in the new climate it was just shrugged off. “You have this new level of rhetoric talking about political opponents as ‘traitors’ who, in theory, would deserve the death penalty. The president of the United States has pushed this line. Who knows what are the long-term consequences of this, because it certainly ramps up the coarsening of our political culture.”
Within the White House, the counselor Kellyanne Conway, lawyer Rudy Giuliani and press secretary Sarah Sanders are reliable defenders. Within Congress, they are ably backed by Cheney, Congressman Matt Gaetz – “Comey, Clapper, and Brennan all are in jeopardy” – Jim Jordan, Kevin McCarthy and Senator Lindsey Graham, who this month suggested that Trump Jr should ignore a congressional subpoena. Elsewhere in the forest, Trump can count on the vocal support of rightwing pressure groups such as the American Conservative Union, National Rifle Association and Turning Point USA, whose founder and president, Charlie Kirk, tweeted on Friday: “BOOM!/ Despite constant fake news/ The two year Russia investigation/ And a failed Democrat coup/ President Trump’s approval rating just hit its highest point in two years!” Judicial Watch, which claims to be a “conservative non-partisan educational foundation promoting transparency, accountability, & integrity in government”, is fighting Trump’s corner ferociously. It pumps out a constant stream of damning claims about Obama and Hillary Clinton, promising to “expose Obama’s cover ups of Clinton’s crimes”. This week its president, Tom Fitton, described the Mueller investigation as an “abuse of power” and called for the special counsel himself to be investigated. On Friday he tweeted: “AG Barr’s truth-telling on Spygate abuses of @RealDonaldTrump and its threat to our republican form of government is essential reading.” There are also outspoken Christian evangelical backers such as Jerry Falwell Jr and Franklin Graham, the social media personalities Diamond and Silk and the actors James Woods and Jon Voight, the latter of whom who urged last week: “Let us stand up for this truth: that President Trump is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.”
None of this would gain much traction without willing media outlets. Trump is a regular viewer of and interviewee on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. The line between the White House and the network has become increasingly blurred. When Mueller broke a two-year silence this week to deliver a statement, highlighting that he had not cleared Trump of a crime, Fox News’ opinion hosts got to work. Tucker Carlson described the special counsel as “sleazy and dishonest”, Sean Hannity said “he’s basically full of crap” and Laura Ingraham insisted: “The deep state set Candidate Trump up after it became obvious he was going to win the nomination.” There is ample backup from Breitbart News, the Federalist – “Lawsuit Exposes How The Media And Deep State Hatched The Russiagate Hoax” – the One America News Network and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, along with media figures such as Lou Dobbs, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh. But none has the power of Fox News, the top-rated cable network, where Don Jr, the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer and others sell the president’s message to millions of viewers.
Kurt Bardella, a former House oversight committee and Breitbart spokesman, said: “People who worked for [Trump] or are making money off him go out and say something on Fox News. The president will watch it and regurgitate it. They will then get to say, ‘Like the president said …’ If you took Fox out of the equation, you’d go back to the old media ecosystem.” It does not take much for a wild idea to hop from the dark reaches of the internet to Fox News to Capitol Hill to the White House and back again. Today’s fringe rumour is tomorrow’s Republican conventional wisdom. Some argue that paves the way for a constitutional crisis. Bardella added: “Trump’s congressional enablers talk about these conspiracy theories and legitimise them. Apparently the attorney general sees himself as Trump protector rather than the defender of justice. There’s nothing to stop them trying to chase down these conspiracy theories and using all the official tools at their disposal to do so.”
Fox Fake News a Clear & Present Danger
President Donald Trump ratcheted-up his war on law enforcement last week when he ordered all federal intelligence agencies to “quickly and fully” cooperate with Attorney General Bill Barr’s probe into the origins of the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Ordinarily, a presidential order directing federal agencies to cooperate with a Department of Justice investigation would be hailed as strong and decisive support of law enforcement. But not here. Not now. Not with President Trump. The president’s move to “investigate the investigators” is designed to make agents and prosecutors think twice before they pursue legitimate evidence against him — which threatens a chilling effect on other investigations still in progress. It’s no great surprise that Trump took this path — or that his loyal base is now chanting “Lock them up” as a threat to law enforcement agents who dare investigate the president. The stunning development has been the eager participation of Congressional Republicans and the attorney general.
While the past two years have exposed a frightened and cowed GOP, resigned to carry the president’s water, Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, pushed back against White House efforts to morph the Justice Department into a pawn of the president. In sharp contrast, Bill Barr has shown his spine to be the moral equivalent of sugar-free Jello. Mr. Trump’s rallying cry to “investigate the investigators” began with his baseless 2017 claim that President Obama “wiretapped” his telephones. Since then, the president has manufactured similar claims that he’s placed on a public canvas like dots on a Seurat painting. Up close, they’re just a bunch of dots. But step back, view the larger picture, and you’ve got a full-fledged investigation into the FBI leadership and agents who investigated the president. Given that the FBI is part of DOJ, it’s like watching a dog gnaw its own tail to the bone. Nothing I’ve said should be interpreted as suggesting that law enforcement is immune from investigation. To the contrary, some of the most satisfying cases I handled as a federal prosecutor were investigations of bad cops. But there is a difference between investigating law enforcement agents who have violated the public trust and investigating agents for having the courage to do their job, even if it means shining a light on the corrupt underbelly of the most powerful man in the world.
Any reasonable examination of these two possibilities points to only one conclusion: The Trump-Barr tag team is political retribution against the FBI, rather than a legitimate effort to hold law enforcement accountable for a misstep. Trump’s loudest complaint has been aimed at the Steele dossier, a compilation of reports by respected former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Published in 2017, the dossier was an early guide to Russia’s efforts at hijacking the 2016 election. Because the Steele dossier contained intelligence that was not conclusively proven, the president has claimed its use was illegal and that it tainted all that came after, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. The problem with the president’s claim is well-known to the attorney general: Information that is not fully verified is legally allowed to be used in a criminal investigation, and is routinely used in wiretap applications. More to the point, it was a disclosure by Trump aide George Papadopoulos that started the Russia investigation, not the Steele dossier.
Trump has also endlessly attacked the Russia investigation as biased, based on personal texts of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI employees who worked on the investigation. Some of their personal texts were critical of then-candidate Trump. Strzok and Page were quickly removed from the investigation, as a precaution, when their texts were discovered. And while they should not have been texting personal political messages on their FBI phones, the notion that investigators are free from political opinions is as naïve in its application as it is misguided in its aspiration. Agents, prosecutors, and judges all have opinions that they set aside to make professional decisions every day. If an agent’s personal political beliefs barred him from investigating a politician, only supporters of the politician would be assigned to investigate. If that’s the hill on which the president and Congressional Republicans want to stake their flag, they should be forced to do so publicly. Let them issue a statement proclaiming that only law enforcement agents who voted for Trump may participate in an investigation in which he is a subject.
In an effort to cement his complicity in the president’s unwarranted attack on the Russia probe, last month Barr told Congress that the Trump campaign had been “spied on” by law enforcement. It appears Barr was referring to court-authorized surveillance as “spying.” No prosecutor worth his salt would ever refer to legal surveillance as “spying,” and Barr’s decision to do so was designed more as a favorable Trump headline than a genuine revelation. The president, his Congressional proxies, and Barr have done everything in their power to create hysteria around the central theme that Trump and his campaign were victims rather than legitimate subjects of the FBI’s Russia investigation. Just last month, Mr. Trump told Fox News: “This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.” And on Sunday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said FBI agents investigating Trump may have committed “treason.” The problem for Democrats is that the law related to investigative techniques is complex and is not intuitive in a way the public can easily understand. Addressing allegations of impropriety does not come quickly or simply and is not amenable to a soundbite that can be absorbed when skimming a headline or half-listening to the news while preparing dinner. This works in the president’s favor, and he capitalizes on it by repeating phrases like “coup,” “fake dossier,” and “FBI bias.” Debunking these claims takes time and effort, both of which are in short supply with a public that is growing weary of all things Russia. Repetition has become reality, despite proof to the contrary.
As a nervous flyer, I never listen to what the pilot says about the turbulence that is tossing us around like a toy boat in a two-year-old’s bath. I always keep my eyes on the flight attendants. If they are looking at each other in horror, I know I’m in trouble. But if they keep popping M&M peanuts into their mouths, I know I’ll live to see another day. The public can no longer look to the head of the Justice Department to reliably assess the truth of what comes from DOJ. Keep your eyes on the federal prosecutors who have become mainstays on most news outlets since Donald Trump moved into the White House more than two years ago. As former Justice Department prosecutors, we are no longer beholden to DOJ. We realize the peril of the partisan misinformation that is coming from the institution to which most of us dedicated our professional careers. More than 1,000 of us have signed a statement that contradicts the attorney general and tells the truth about Mueller’s report. As the Trump-Barr effort to discredit the Russia investigation shifts into high-gear, I predict things are going to go from bad to worse. I also predict the public will again hear a united voice of former DOJ prosecutors who insist the truth be told, despite Bill Barr’s best efforts to the contrary.
My opinion here will not be popular with activist progressives. The evangelical support for a moral renegade is almost entirely based on the culture wars & abortion in particular. And remember I’ve been a lifelong Republican with center-right leanings, so I still have my conservative roots despite my now radicalized former party having gone off the rails. So I do support Uncle Joe on his (previous) position standing up for the Hyde Amendment. Think of it this way. If conservatives do think of an abortion as the murder of a helpless baby, it would take plenty of chutzpah to demand they spend their tax dollars to help pay for it. That is simply a bridge too far & evangelicals don’t have a map to that bridge. And Biden agrees in this article, at least until political pressures caused him to back down today: