The Latest Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory Began at the Wall Street Journal

Almost two weeks ago, Darren Samuelsohn reported on the strategy being deployed by Trump’s new legal team when it comes to the Mueller investigation.

They’re banking that the lead Russia investigator will follow long-standing Justice Department practice that a sitting president can’t be indicted, and that the only real threat to Trump’s survival is impeachment.

So long as that theory holds, Trump’s plan is to forcefully challenge Mueller in the arena he knows best — not the courtroom but the media, with a public campaign aimed at the special counsel’s credibility, especially among Republican voters and GOP members of Congress.

That requires the development of a whole different narrative to explain what we have been learning about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, as well as to discredit both individuals and institutions that are involved in the investigation. That has led to what Greg Sargent wrote about yesterday.

There are two Mueller probes. There’s the one that exists in the Fox News-addled mind of President Trump and his supporters, which features dark conspiracy-mongering about a “Deep State coup” against Trump; out-of-control federal agents jackbooting poor, hapless Trump allies; and, of course, the corrupt failure to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Then there’s the one that exists in most mainstream news accounts, which features a team of investigators mostly going by the book, never leaking, methodically following the facts, albeit very aggressively, wherever they will lead.

The stories on Fox News aren’t always original. Sometimes they are merely the bullhorn that amplifies the conspiracy theories that are initiated elsewhere. Such is the case with the latest story to go viral on right wing media that was originally spun by Kimberley Strassel at the Wall Street Journal. In reporting on the efforts of Rep. Devin Nunes to subpoena documents that the Justice Department has warned could put an intelligence asset at risk, she tells quite the tale.

Thanks to the Washington Post’s unnamed law-enforcement leakers, we know Mr. Nunes’s request deals with a “top secret intelligence source” of the FBI and CIA, who is a U.S. citizen and who was involved in the Russia collusion probe. When government agencies refer to sources, they mean people who appear to be average citizens but use their profession or contacts to spy for the agency. Ergo, we might take this to mean that the FBI secretly had a person on the payroll who used his or her non-FBI credentials to interact in some capacity with the Trump campaign.

This would amount to spying, and it is hugely disconcerting.

Let’s begin to unravel this one by pointing out that the source for the Washington Post story was the subpoena Rep. Nunes issued for the documents.

The Justice Department has refused to provide the documents. Intelligence officials say the material could jeopardize the source, a U.S. citizen who has aided the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.

The subpoena, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, demands “all documents referring or related to the individual referenced in Chairman Nunes’ April 24, 2018 classified letter to Attorney General Sessions.” That is the only material the subpoena seeks.

But the gist of Strassel’s story is that the FBI had a spy within the Trump campaign. To make this one explosive, she had to speculate about the timing.

And to the point, when precisely was this human source operating? Because if it was prior to that infamous Papadopoulos tip, then the FBI isn’t being straight. It would mean the bureau was spying on the Trump campaign prior to that moment. And that in turn would mean that the FBI had been spurred to act on the basis of something other than a junior campaign aide’s loose lips.

As you might have noticed by now, Strassel throws in every lie that has been spread about this investigation by the likes of Trump and his enablers, like that tidbit about Papadopoulos being a junior campaign aide with loose lips. She also threw in the whole unmasking nonsense that was originally propagated by Nunes and later debunked by even the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.

Beyond all the hype injected by Strassel, what we actually know is that the intelligence asset has provided information to the Mueller investigation, that they are a U.S. citizen and that, according to the intelligence community, disclosure could risk severe consequences and damage relationships with “valued international partners.” From there, Strassel’s whole piece is nothing by speculation and spin.

Of course, none of that has stopped Trump’s enablers in right-wing media from running with this conspiracy theory. To give you just a taste, it’s been all over Fox News, including bits on Hannity’s show, as well as via Tucker Carlson. It has also been parroted by everyone from the likes of Rush Limbaugh to Andrew McCarthy at the National Review.

The reason it is important to know what is going on in the alternative universe of right-wing news where facts don’t matter is that this is precisely what the Trump team’s strategy is all about. As Samuelsohn wrote, it is an attempt to shield the president from the facts that will surface from the Mueller probe, particularly with Republican voters and GOP members of Congress. With the former, it seems to be working.

Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on how they see special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to President Trump’s campaign, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Overall, the former FBI director’s favorability ratings have dropped over the past month as Trump and other Republicans have ratcheted up their attacks on Mueller and his ongoing probe. There’s been a net-negative swing of 11 points over the past month, with 32 percent of all Americans holding a favorable view toward Mueller, 30 percent viewing him unfavorably, and a 38 percent plurality still not knowing enough to have an opinion.

Perhaps more than any other evidence, all of this points to the fact that the Trump presidency wouldn’t exist and certainly wouldn’t survive if it were not for his enablers in right-wing media. As long as their lies and conspiracy theories are viewed by Republican voters as valid, the ongoing threat will remain.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.