Fox News’ senior judicial analyst, Judge Andrew Napolitano, claimed that former President Barack Obama asked a British intelligence agency to spy on President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and the transition period and to provide the former president with transcripts of Trump's conversations. Napolitano’s claim can be traced in part back to an interview on the state-sponsored Russian network RT with a former CIA official who has accused John Kerry of war crimes, spread the 2008 rumor about a supposed recording of former first lady Michelle Obama “railing against ‘whitey,’” and now is floating “sedition” charges against former Obama officials.
Napolitano: Obama Used British Intelligence To Spy On Trump
Fox’s Andrew Napolitano: “Obama Went Outside The Chain Of Command” To Ask For “Transcripts Of Conversations” Involving Trump. Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano claimed on the March 13 edition of Fox News’ The First 100 Days that “if then-Mr. Donald Trump, the president-elect, was surveilled as he says he was, … it was done by a foreign intelligence entity,” Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), at the request of former President Barack Obama. The following morning, Napolitano again claimed on Fox that “three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command” and “used GCHQ” to acquire “transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump,” ensuring that “there is no American fingerprints on this” and no evidence of the alleged surveillance. From the March 14 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): Judge, what do you mean he can't prove it? I thought he could prove everything. We have all the American surveillance and technology at our fingerprints.
ANDREW NAPOLITANO: OK, so, the statutes authorize the president of the United States to order the surveillance of any person in the United States of America without suspicion, without probable cause, and without a warrant, meaning he doesn't have to go to a court to do it. So he can order the NSA, which already has the digital version of our phone calls, to transcribe the digital version into a transcript and give it to him. But if he does that, there is a record of the order.
NAPOLITANO: So, three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command -- he didn't use the NSA, he didn't use the CIA, he didn't use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What the heck is GCHQ? That’s the initials for the British spying agency. They have 24/7 access to the NSA database. So by simply having two people go to them saying President Obama needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump, conversations involving President-elect Trump, he is able to get it. And there is no American fingerprints on this. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 3/14/17; Fox News, The First 100 Days, 3/13/17]
Napolitano’s Claim Is Part Of A Food Chain That Includes Russian State Media And Hyperpartisan Conspiracy Theories
On RT, Larry C. Johnson Alleged That Obama “Collu[ded] Overseas With Britain’s Own GCHQ” To Spy On Trump. Appearing on a March 6 broadcast on state-sponsored Russian news network RT, Larry C. Johnson, credited as a “former CIA analyst and State Department official,” alleged that “there was some collusion overseas” between U.S. intelligence and “Britain’s own GHCQ (sic)” “to derail the candidacy of Donald Trump.” Citing “very good friends,” Johnson alleged that GCHQ “actually passed” information “to John Brennan, and it was disseminated within the U.S. government.” Johnson closed the RT interview by claiming former Obama administration officials involved in the collusion could face “criminal charges,” specifically sedition. From the March 6 interview:
NEIL HARVEY (HOST): Let’s bring in former CIA analyst and State Department official Larry Johnson, joins me live over the line. Very good afternoon to you, Larry. We’ve heard it said that these are really serious accusations by some guests we’ve had on so far. What’s your assessment of what Donald Trump’s had to said -- how big a deal is this?
LARRY JOHNSON: I think it’s a huge deal. The problem is Trump probably shouldn’t have done this via Twitter, because to call it that it was a wiretap is technically inaccurate. And the denials by the Obama people are like Bill Clinton asking what the meaning of “is” is with respect to was oral sex a sexual act. In this case, I understand from very good friends that what happened was both Jim Clapper and John Brennan at CIA were intimately involved in trying to derail the candidacy of Donald Trump. That there was some collusion overseas with Britain’s own GHCQ (sic). That information that was gathered from GHCQ (sic) was actually passed to John Brennan, and it was disseminated within the U.S. government. This dissemination was illegal. Donald Trump is in essence correct that the intelligence agencies and some in the law enforcement community on the side of the FBI were in fact illegally trying to access, monitor his communications with his aides, and with other people. All of this with an end to try to destroy and discredit his presidency. I don’t think there will be any doubt of that. [RT, 3/6/17 via YouTube]
Johnson’s RT Interview Was Shared By Hyperpartisan And Conspiracy Theorist Sites. On March 6, RT’s Johnson interview was shared by Conservative World Daily, a hyperpartisan clickbait site, with the headline “INSIDE SOURCE Larry C. Johnson Provides Information That Obama Approved Spying On Trump.” Also on March 6, Infowars, a conspiracy theory website with ties to Trump, posted an article about the interview. The article, bylined by conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, was titled “FORMER CIA ANALYST: OBAMA GAVE ‘GREEN LIGHT’ FOR NSA, CIA TO SABOTAGE TRUMP.” [Conservative World Daily, 3/6/17; Infowars, 3/6/17]
After Napolitano Made The Claim On Fox, Reddit And Breitbart Picked Up The Conspiracy Theory. After Napolitano’s appearances on The First 100 Days and Fox & Friends, Breitbart.com and the subreddit about Trump, r/The-Donald -- two websites central to the “alt-right” -- quickly picked up on the conspiracy theory. Two threads on r/The_Donald were devoted to “Fox reporting that British Spy agency feed Obama wiretap intel on the Trump Campaign.” Breitbart News also circulated a clip of Napolitano on Fox & Friends, writing that “‘three intel sources’ say Obama looked to Brit agency to spy on Trump.” [Reddit, 3/13/17, 3/13/17; Breitbart, 3/14/17]
Several Fake News Purveyors Hyped Napolitano’s Allegations. Fake news purveyors picked up on Napolitano’s claim and pushed it on their sites. The Conservative Tribune wrote that Napolitano “dropped a bombshell” on Obama, citing WikiLeaks as additional evidence that Obama “was inclined to spy on others, including world leaders.” Right Wing News wrote in a headline that Napolitano dropped a “NUCLEAR BOMB on Obama,” and asserted that “there’s an excellent chance” that Napolitano’s claim “is indeed true and accurate.” [Conservative Tribune, accessed 3/15/17; Right Wing News, 3/14/17; Media Matters, 12/14/16; Snopes.com, 7/31/15]
RT Guest Has Dubious Record And Previously Spread Notorious Obama Smear
In 2013, Johnson Published Apparently Edited Audio To Accuse John Kerry Of War Crimes. On September 7, 2013, Johnson posted on his website No Quarter an article alleging that then-Secretary of State John Kerry “is a self-admitted rapist,” pointing to audio allegedly from a 1971 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show. Johnson’s audio had Kerry appearing to say that he “raped for pleasure” during the Vietnam War. Actual video of that episode shows that Kerry never said that. Some time after a commenter noted that “the audio is obviously doctored” and linked to the original clip and a transcript, the post was deleted. [No Quarter, 9/7/13 via Internet Archive; YouTube, accessed 3/14/17]
In 2008, Johnson “Was Instrumental In Spreading” The Rumor Of A Tape Of “Michelle Obama Railing Against ‘Whitey.’” On May 16, 2008, Johnson wrote in a post titled “Will Barack Throw Mama From The Train?” that he heard from first “two,” then “three,” and, as of last update, “four sources (three who are close to senior Republicans) that there is video dynamite–Michelle Obama railing against ‘whitey’ at Jeremiah Wright’s church.” Johnson suggested the tape would destroy the Obamas’ marriage, asking if “Barack [will] stand by Michelle when the tape emerges of her verbally attacking ‘whitey?’” Dave Weigel wrote in The American Prospect that Johnson “was instrumental in spreading the rumor that Republican operatives possessed a tape of Barack Obama's wife Michelle railing against ‘whitey.’” [No Quarter, 5/16/08; The American Prospect, 6/24/08]
British Intelligence Called Napolitano’s Claim “Absurd” And “Untrue”
British Security Official Dismissed Napolitano’s “Totally Untrue And Quite Frankly Absurd” Conspiracy Theory. On March 15, the International Business Times reported that “a security official, who is familiar with British government policy and security operations,” denied that GCHQ spied on Trump for Obama. The official told Reuters that Napolitano’s claim was “totally untrue and quite frankly absurd,” because GCHQ “can only gather intelligence for national security purposes," and the U.S. presidential election “clearly doesn’t meet that criteria.” [International Business Times, 3/15/17]
This item has been updated with additional information.