A pair of interconnected conspiracy theories designed to undermine the FBI and the special counsel’s investigation of President Donald Trump’s administration were concocted by the president’s Republican congressional allies, championed by the pro-Trump media, and then promptly fell apart this week.
The conservative hysteria revolved around text messages during the 2016 presidential campaign between high-ranking FBI agent Peter Strzok, who helped lead federal investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server and the links between Russia and Trump’s campaign, and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was reportedly having an extramarital affair. Some of those messages included criticism of Trump (leading to Strzok’s removal from the special counsel’s investigation over the summer). The president’s allies have seized on newly released texts as part of their effort to undermine the Mueller investigation, baselessly citing them as evidence of improper “deep state” bias against the president. Meanwhile, they have largely ignored other texts that dramatically undermine that conspiracy theory.
In this latest salvo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported on Monday that while more than 50,000 text messages had been exchanged between the two officials, the FBI’s system had not retained the messages for the period between December 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017. The same day, Republican members of Congress claimed in interviews with Fox News that one of the available text messages included a reference to “the first meeting of the secret society.”
Armed with those two facts,Trump’s media allies went wild, suggesting that an FBI “secret society” was targeting the president and that the missing messages had been deliberately deleted to cover up the effort. “People at the highest level in the DOJ and the FBI ... must be investigated, they must be indicted, and probably many of them thrown in jail,” Sean Hannity said on Tuesday night. “There needs to be serious ramifications if we are going to save our country.” Fox Business host Lou Dobbs argued that it “may be time to declare war outright against the deep state, and clear out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.” “I’ve said it before - THEY NEED TO BE TAKEN OUT IN CUFFS,” Fox’s Jeanine Pirro tweeted.
The stories became a leading fixation on Fox News throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday:
And then, just as swiftly as they had arisen, the stories collapsed. Federal law enforcement officials explained that, rather than being specifically deleted as part of a nefarious cover-up, the technical glitch that prevented the archiving of five months of Page-Strzok texts had actually affected almost one in ten FBI employees. And the actual text message, obtained by ABC, that the president’s Republican and media allies were citing showed that the comment appeared to be a joke (which was always the most plausible explanation):
It was an embarrassing moment for the Republican congressmen who were exposed pushing obvious nonsense to protect the president by damaging the FBI, and the Fox commentators and other pro-Trump media figures who helped the story along. But of course, none of these people have any shame:
The pro-Trump media can’t back down now. They have spent months declaring in increasingly dire terms that the “deep state” had engaged in a “coup” against the president and needed to be purged.
The heightened intensity of that counter-narrative becomes all the more important as new reports indicate that the special counsel’s investigation is getting ever-closer to Trump himself -- and as more evidence mounts that the president has repeatedly sought to obstruct that effort and purge the Justice Department of people he considers disloyal to him.
But thanks to the right-wing alternative media bubble, the pro-Trump audience is existing in a parallel news universe, constantly hearing that the president did nothing wrong and that extreme actions are needed to protect him from his foes.