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Media in support of President Donald Trump are calling for the ouster of Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, accusing him of being a “globalist” “traitor” who is “aligned with the enemies of Trump and America.”
Over the past month, McMaster has worked to oust some members of the National Security Council (NSC) who were previously aligned with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s chief strategist (and former Breitbart News head) Steve Bannon. On July 21, McMaster dismissed Rich Higgins, a top NSC official who was “seen as an ally of” Bannon, after Higgins wrote a memo claiming that “globalists and Islamists” were trying to undermine Trump, according to The Atlantic. In early August, McMaster pushed out Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom Flynn had hired for the NSC and McMaster had tried to fire earlier in the year (he was blocked by Bannon and others from doing so).
Additionally, Circa News, a pro-Trump outlet owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group, claimed on August 3 that McMaster had sent a letter to former national security adviser Susan Rice “giving her unfettered and continuing access to classified information and waiving her ‘need-to-know’ requirement on anything she viewed or received during her tenure.” The article noted that “it is common practice for some senior government officials to be given the unfettered access to classified information, and their ‘need to know’ is waived,” but went on to note that some “White House officials” believe Rice’s clearance should have been limited. That’s in large part due to pro-Trump media’s dubious accusation that Rice is guilty of unlawfully “unmasking” Trump officials caught in surveillance, even though officials have said there is no proof Rice did anything wrong.
In response to McMaster’s ousters and the Circa report, pro-Trump media have attacked the national security adviser. Fox News host and Trump propagandist Sean Hannity asked if “H.R. McMaster need[s] to go” following the Rice report. Conspiracy theory website Infowars claimed McMaster is part of the “deep state coup rooting out patriots from White House,” and Infowars Editor Paul Joseph Watson wrote, “McMaster is an Islamist-sympathizer and a globalist. He has to go.” Breitbart, Bannon’s former outlet, also pointed to a Facebook post from an Israeli columnist accusing McMaster of being “deeply hostile to Israel and to Trump.” Pamela Geller, a Breitbart contributor and anti-Muslim extremist, wrote on her website that McMaster is “aligned with the enemies of Trump and America.” Pro-Trump website The Gateway Pundit called McMaster “a globalist” and questioned “why he is still a top Trump official.” Multiple far-right trolls, including Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, Cassandra Fairbanks, and Stefan Molyneux, called for Trump to fire McMaster (with some using the hashtag “#FireMcMaster”) because McMaster “approved of Susan Rice keeping her top-secret security clearance,” because “its (sic) time for the WH to find a Natl Sec Advisor who supports the President,” and because “H.R. McMaster is a Deep State Plant who Opposes the Trump Agenda.”
Additionally, multiple fake news purveyors have targeted McMaster, with both Liberty Writers and USA Newsflash calling McMaster a “traitor” due to his Rice letter, as did TruthFeed, which additionally claimed that he may, along with Rice, be “leading a Deep State Coup.” Conservative Daily Post claimed McMaster “gave” Rice “the power to” spy “on political opponents, which is a complete violation of the Constitution,” Mad World News alleged McMaster is a “secret mole” and “a Judas in the White House,” and Right Wing News suggested that Trump “has been stabbed in the back by McMaster” because of his letter to Rice. America’s Freedom Fighters also claimed that “many are demanding to know why McMaster is still even working within the Trump administration while he wrecks (sic) this sort of havoc.”
Additionally, the think tank Alliance for Securing Democracy’s tool to track Russian-affiliated bots showed that those bots were pushing “#FireMcMaster” on Twitter within the past 48 hours. This is the same hashtag some of the far-right trolls have used against McMaster. These bots have also been spreading some of TruthFeed’s anti-McMaster articles.
All these articles drew attention on Facebook: The two Gateway Pundit articles had at least 2,700 and 310 engagements, respectively; the Liberty Writers article, 28,200; USA Newsflash, 17,600; Conservative Daily Post, 1,900; Mad World News, 5,400; Right Wing News, 316; America’s Freedom Fighters, 1,100; and the two TruthFeed articles, 612 and 1,700, respectively, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo.
Fake news purveyors are promoting dubious claims from “alt-right” figures Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec that former FBI Director James Comey dropped an FBI investigation into former national security advisor Susan Rice because it would have implicated him. They are also claiming that Rice is in legal jeopardy for unmasking aides of President Donald Trump who were caught on incidental FBI surveillance. There have been no mainstream media reports that Rice or Comey committed any wrongdoing, and both Cernovich and Posobiec have a history of pushing misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Similar Media Support Helped Enable Iraq War
After President Donald Trump launched airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in that country, media figures from across the political spectrum praised his “beautiful” attack, with many also linking the action to the growing threat that another country -- North Korea -- poses to the United States. Effusive media support of military conflict was a key precursor to the Iraq War; the danger of such uncritically hawkish commentary has multiplied under Trump, who sources policy ideas -- and defenses for his conduct -- directly from media.
President Donald Trump pushed a claim hyped by right-wing media that former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice may have committed a crime and could face legal jeopardy for “unmasking” Trump associates caught in surveillance.
On April 2, “alt-right” leader Mike Cernovich originally wrote that the White House Counsel’s office had “identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking [of Trump transition officials incidentally captured in legal surveillance] after examining Rice’s document log requests.” Cernovich’s post, which cited no other source for the claim other than the White House, noted that Rice would have been “authorized” to request that the names be unmasked, and did not claim she broke any laws. Cernovich’s post was amplified by fringe “alt-right” outlets, conservative media, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr.
But some right-wing media figures, including Rush Limbaugh, have taken the still unconfirmed claim a step further, suggesting that Rice’s actions were illegal. However, that claim has been debunked by numerous national security experts who explained that nothing reported so far indicates that Rice violated the law, and that if she did unmask these officials, she would have been carrying out her duty as national security advisor. Former National Security Director Michael Hayden said it was “absolutely lawful. Even somewhat routine,” and, “There are very plausible, legitimate reasons why she would request such information.” Former CIA Acting Director John McLaughlin also defended Rice, saying, “she was doing her job. That’s what national security advisors are expected to do.”
But Trump has now parroted the claim that Rice may have acted illegally, commenting on the issue in an April 5 interview with The New York Times. The president said “‘I think’” Rice had committed a crime "by seeking the identities of Trump associates who were mentioned on intercepted communications," adding that “‘it’s going to be the biggest story’” for “our country and the world.’” From the article:
President Trump said on Wednesday that he thought that the former national security adviser Susan E. Rice may have committed a crime by seeking the identities of Trump associates who were mentioned on intercepted communications and that other Obama administration officials may also have been involved.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office, declining repeated requests for evidence for his allegations or the names of other Obama administration officials. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”
He declined to say if he had personally reviewed new intelligence to bolster his claim but pledged to explain himself “at the right time.”
When asked if Ms. Rice, who has denied leaking the names of Trump associates under surveillance by United States intelligence agencies, had committed a crime, the president said, “Do I think? Yes, I think.”
For most of the last decade, the flow of misinformation was often easy to track in media, with right-wing media often forcing mainstream outlets to follow the stories and tone they favored. Now, a couple of months into President Donald Trump’s administration, this pattern has changed and new players have entered the ecosystem. Groups that used to be contained to their own bubble have been able to insert themselves into the food chain and been able to spread not just misleading, but patently false information to right-wing outlets and sometimes even in turn to mainstream media. A new dubious allegation regarding Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, illustrates how this new pattern can spread pro-Trump misinformation and propaganda from fringe sources into mainstream media outlets.
Recently, fake news and the white nationalist “alt-right” movement have become two of the country’s biggest problems in terms of fighting misinformation. Both government officials and websites like Facebook and Google are trying to lessen the harmful impact as websites that share fake news continue to mislead news consumers. And the “alt-right” is growing in prominence thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of “alt-right” website Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Fringe “alt-right” forums, on sites like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, exercise influence by pushing conspiracy theories and leading harassment campaigns.
These different groups do not operate in a vacuum. Repeatedly, they have come together to spread and amplify their misinformation and claims. Often, a claim will start on a fringe outlet or forum, and other such sites will amplify the misinformation, then fake news purveyors will push it, and then the claim will jump into more traditional right-wing media before sometimes spreading into mainstream media. Trump aides and other people connected to Trump have even promoted some of those stories, crucially helping them break through at times.
And that brings us to Rice.
On April 2, Mike Cernovich, a self-described member of the “alt-right,” claimed in a post on Medium that the “White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking” of Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials “after examining Rice’s document log requests.” The claim then spread among fringe outlets such as The Gateway Pundit -- which said the unmasking “was purely for political purposes” -- and Infowars, and spread via posts on 4chan and Reddit.
As the claim started getting pickup on Twitter, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, promoted Cernovich with a tweet linking to the main page of his Medium blog (the next day, Donald Trump. Jr praised Cernovich for “breaking the #SusanRice story”).
The claim was then echoed by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who added a layer of credibility to the attempted smear, writing that Rice “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Meanwhile, multiple fake news purveyors hyped the allegations, dubiously claiming that Rice “could be headed to jail” for “absolute treason.”
Lake conceded in his piece, however, that Rice’s requests “were likely within the law.” Legal and national security experts echoed that conclusion, saying Rice’s actions weren’t “odd or wrong,” did not indicate “anything improper whatsoever,” and were “within the scope of the job of a national security advisor like Rice.” Lake's caveats did not prevent him from going on both Sean Hannity's radio and Fox News show, where the right-wing host described the story as "worse than Watergate."
As the claim spread into the mainstream, some in right-wing media criticized mainstream outlets for not giving the story enough attention or for not presenting it the way they would. Although some mainstream figures have echoed the consensus of experts, others have also suggested that Rice could be guilty of some kind of wrongdoing. Fox News in particular insisted that something must be improper if not illegal about Rice's actions, and in their scramble to claim they may have had the story before Cernovich, likely outed themselves as another outlet that the White House used as a puppet for the Rice leak.
Right-wing criticism of mainstream media’s coverage will likely ramp up, spurring some mainstream outlets to defend their coverage or possibly tweak some of their framing under pressure.
This is the new media ecosystem in the Trump era. No longer are these false claims all originating in traditional right-wing media before mainstream outlets give in to pressure to cover them. Now they can start from these fringe pro-Trump propaganda outlets, with right-wing media picking them up. Meanwhile, members of the “alt-right” continue to gain more prominence and acceptance in traditional conservative and conservative media circles. Indeed, radio host Rush Limbaugh, while hyping the Rice story, bragged that mainstream media outlets are “not the arbiters anymore”; whitewashed the original source of the story, Cernovich, as simply a “pro-Trump blogger,” and said CBS’ 60 Minutes “tried to destroy him”; and criticized mainstream outlets for dismissing the story because it was pushed by right-wing media.
This is not the first example of misinformation following such a trajectory. In March, after a federal judge in Hawaii placed a hold on Trump’s revised Muslim ban, fringe “alt-right” outlets such as Infowars and Gateway Pundit pushed a conspiracy theory that appeared to have started on Reddit alleging that Obama conspired with the judge. The claim then spread among fake news purveyors and was pushed by Donald Trump Jr. before breaking through to more traditional conservative media figures and outlets like Hannity and the Independent Journal Review. Later that month, in order to back up Trump’s false claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, Infowars dubiously claimed it had National Security Agency documents that provided proof. The claim made its way around other “alt-right” outlets and fake news purveyors and wound up being pushed at the top of the Drudge Report.
This is the danger that the new media environment presents. The fringe is no longer being siloed; it has actively been raised into the mainstream by pro-Trump forces both known and unknown, and has been repeatedly validated by both mainstream reporters and especially an administration that has no hesitation about lying to the world. It’s crucial that mainstream media outlets understand this new environment and the kind of claims and conspiracy theories it puts forth. It is one thing to share the mainstream with extremist cranks, propagandists, and liars. It's another thing to succumb and do their pro-Trump misinforming for them.
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Right-Wing Media Scandalize Report That Susan Rice Allegedly Asked For Legal Unmasking Of Trump Officials Found In Intel Reports About Russians
On April 2, alt-right media figure Mike Cernovich reported that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the unmasking of Trump officials. The next day, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake confirmed that Trump administration lawyers accused Rice of requesting “the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Right-wing media figures quickly ran with the report as a “BOMBSHELL,” but according to numerous legal and national security experts, “Rice’s actions are likely legal.”