On April 24, President Donald Trump tweeted that former CIA analyst Larry Johnson has accused the United Kingdom's intelligence agencies of “helping Obama Administration Spy on the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign.” Trump was apparently tweeting in response to a segment he watched on One America News Network, a conservative cable news channel. In doing so, the president has resurfaced a conspiracy theory from a discredited fraud that -- when Fox News promoted it in 2017 -- helped cause an international incident between the United States and the United Kingdom.
“Former CIA analyst Larry Johnson accuses United Kingdom Intelligence of helping Obama Administration Spy on the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign.” @OANN WOW! It is now just a question of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it will be a beauty!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 24, 2019
Larry Johnson is a conservative conspiracy theorist notorious for pushing the racist smear that there was a tape of former first lady Michelle Obama calling people “whitey.” Johnson appeared on Russian television network RT in March 2017 to argue that “there was some collusion overseas” between U.S. intelligence and the U.K. security agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and that British intelligence gathered information about Trump that it passed to Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan. None of Johnson’s allegations are true.
Several days later, Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano shared the theory (with anonymous attribution) on two Fox shows. It then spread over right-wing media and ultimately reached then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer. On March 16, 2017, Spicer cited Napolitano’s RT-sourced conspiracy theory in a press briefing to suggest that one of the United States’ strongest allies was illegally spying on Trump on behalf of then-President Barack Obama. The British government was displeased, and GCHQ issued a rare statement denouncing Napolitano’s “utterly ridiculous” claim.
After The New York Times confirmed Media Matters’ discovery that Johnson was one of Napolitano’s sources for the conspiracy theory, Fox News suspended Napolitano “indefinitely,” which turned out to be approximately two weeks. (Upon his return to Fox, Napolitano doubled down on the claim that got him suspended.) When the controversy blew back on Trump himself during a press conference, the president ducked all responsibility and blamed Fox News.
A few weeks after this incident, CNN reported that European intelligence agencies, including GCHQ, captured Trump campaign communications “during routine surveillance of Russian officials” and passed them on to U.S. intelligence. However, no agencies involved in this incidental collection were “proactively targeting members of the Trump team,” as Johnson, Napolitano, and Spicer had falsely alleged.
Now, two years later, the president is pushing the same conspiracy theory that previously damaged the U.S.-U.K. alliance and which the British government has denounced as “utterly ridiculous” for the second time -- all because he was watching TV.