President Donald Trump has moved beyond Twitter griping and is using the powers of his office to try to discredit the Russia investigation. This past weekend, Trump demanded that the Department of Justice “look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration.” He met with top DOJ officials on Monday to pressure them to start an investigation into their own department’s investigation of Trump’s campaign.
To observers outside the conservative media bubble, Trump’s directive was a critical moment of this presidency. “The president has now crossed one of the brightest red lines in the American rule of law: demanding the Department of Justice open a politically motivated investigation designed to sabotage the criminal and counterintelligence probe into the president’s own campaign,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said on his show Monday. Charlie Savage of The New York Times wrote that Trump “inched further toward breaching an established constraint on executive power: The White House does not make decisions about individual law enforcement investigations.”
The significance of Trump’s action is compounded by the fact that even the president and his subordinates acknowledge that this notion that the Obama administration acted inappropriately is just speculation. But it would be extremely convenient for Trump and his defenders if it were true -- or perceived to be true -- which is why he’s ordered this investigation.
It's crucial to view this attempt by the White House to assert the existence of an anti-Trump cabal within the government in context: It's the latest in a series of fraudulent and debunked attemps to push such a claim. Trump’s demand that his investigators be investigated rests on a foundation of lies that was built with the critical assistance of a credulous and complicit right-wing media.
Let’s run through all the major conspiracy theories that brought us to this point.
The effort by Trump and his defenders to deflect attention from the Russia investigation onto the previous administration started with this early-morning tweet from March 2017:
It was a deathly serious allegation for the president to make, and it was completely false. Top Justice Department officials denied the allegation, a DOJ court filing affirmed that there are “no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets,” and the president has not produced any evidence to back up his accusation.
Nonetheless, Trump’s defenders in the conservative media contorted themselves to try to prove Trump was right, especially following House intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes’ March 22, 2017, press conference (which Nunes secretly coordinated with the White House) announcing that “surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.”
Speaking of Nunes, he became the driving force behind the allegation that Obama administration officials had improperly unmasked the identities of Trump associates whose conversations were incidentally captured by intelligence agencies. Once again acting on information provided by the Trump White House, Nunes accused former national security adviser Susan Rice and other Obama officials of abusing the unmasking process. Rice acknowledged that she had requested certain identities, but congressional investigators from both parties said she’d done nothing wrong.
The “unmasking” nonsense permeated conservative media and was presented as evidence of an Obama-led conspiracy to undermine Trump as president-elect. Trump himself told The New York Times that he believed Rice had committed a crime.
This was an especially stupid fiasco kicked up by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX). The pair went on Fox News to reveal the existence of a text message exchange between two FBI agents sent the day after the 2016 election that referenced a “secret society” supposedly populated by anti-Trump law enforcement officials. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, seized on the message to allege “corruption at the highest levels of the FBI.” Conservative media went absolutely crazy with the “secret society” allegation, holding it up as proof of a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump.
The “secret society” turned out to be nothing more than an inside joke between the two agents.
Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing”
The White House’s deflection strategy rests on the idea that Barack Obama corrupted law enforcement agencies by directing them to investigate Donald Trump’s campaign as a way of undermining his candidacy. To that end, Republicans and conservatives are invested in demonstrating that Obama actively meddled in politically sensitive law enforcement business, such as the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In February, Johnson’s committee released a report alleging that a text message from an FBI agent stating that Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing” raised “questions about the type and extent of President Obama’s personal involvement in the Clinton email scandal and the FBI investigation of it.”
Once again, conservative media was driven to a frenzy, fueled partially by Trump’s tweet that the “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!” And, once again, it all turned out to be false -- the text in question referred to presidential briefing materials regarding the investigation into Russian election interference, not Clinton.
FBI hid info from the FISA court
In February, Nunes’ committee released a memo that, according to the frantic hype that preceded its release, would reveal rampant surveillance abuses committed by intelligence agencies against the Trump campaign. Chief among the alleged abuses was the accusation that the FBI had illicitly obtained a warrant to surveil former Trump aide Carter Page by concealing from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the political origin of some of the evidence it cited in its application.
Right-wing media figures like Sean Hannity called this “Watergate times a thousand” and said the FBI “lie[d] to a foreign intelligence surveillance court.” Trump tweeted that the memo “totally vindicates” him and showed the Russia investigation to be “an American disgrace.”
It was a lie -- the political origin of the evidence was indeed disclosed in the FBI application -- and Nunes and his Republican colleagues admitted as much in the days following the memo’s release.
What emerges from all this is a damning picture of a Republican political operation -- involving the White House and key members of Congress -- to concoct blatant falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and a conservative media apparatus that readily absorbs and rebroadcasts that propaganda. At a certain level, behavior like this is to be expected -- these same characters spent all eight years of the Obama administration cobbling together ridiculous conspiracy theories about Benghazi, the former president’s birthplace, and a secret military invasion of Texas.
There is a key difference, however, in all the lying about the Russia investigation. These conspiracy theories are defensive. Most conservative pundits will describe the Russia investigation as a threat to the very fabric of American government; they recognize the extreme danger it poses to Trump’s presidency. Trump himself has no discernible legal strategy. Instead, he’s fighting a public relations campaign and casting himself as the victim of a “witch hunt.”
These attacks on the legitimacy of the investigation are the only weapon they have against it. And as the investigation exposes Trump to more and more legal and political peril, the conspiratorial attacks on the Justice Department and the Obama administration become more strident. Trump used to be content to vent on Twitter about the Russia investigation, but now he’s using the weight of his office to give life to an evidence-free accusation of political persecution.
Trump relies on the conservative media’s unthinking support as he wages this increasingly unhinged campaign. He needs to hear the hosts of Fox & Friends chirp every morning about how each new phony “bombshell” about the Russia investigation vindicates him. He needs to chat with Sean Hannity every night before bedtime about how Robert Mueller is out to get him. But Trump is only going to get more frustrated as each increasingly elaborate falsehood fails to produce the desired outcome, and that means the coordinated lying and conspiracy-mongering are only going to get worse as the investigation moves forward.