Donald Trump
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/flickr

A little over a week ago, Greg Sargent made an important observation:

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.

In the last few days, the trajectory of those two “probes” have proceeded to intensify in opposite directions. We now have a continuing investigation by the Justice Department inspector general into the conspiracy claims made by Trump and his enablers alongside deepening evidence that the Trump administration was not only corrupted by ties to Russia, but other foreign governments as well.

The tales crafted by the conspiracy mongers don’t have to bother with facts. As we see from Trump, he can jump-start the narrative by simply saying that “a lot of people are suggesting that [the FBI] had spies in my campaign” and Vice President Pence can chime in with, “The American people have a right to know” if the Trump campaign was surveilled. That has all the flavor of asking someone when they quit beating their wife. But take a look at how Maria Bartiromo ups the ante.

She doesn’t come right out and say that Obama or Clinton masterminded the whole “witch hunt” against Trump. She is simply asking questions and says that it “sounds like” they did. Bartiromo’s evidence for that claim includes:

  1. Comey briefed Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates about the Trump campaign in March 2016
  2. A couple of months later, the Steele dossier began to surface
  3. The dossier was used to get a warrant and to spy on the Trump campaign
  4. Text message between Strzok and Page says, “Obama wants to know everything”
  5. Text message between Strzok and Page says, “We need an insurance policy”

The facts behind each of those bullet points completely fail to substantiate her claim about Obama or Clinton being the mastermind behind this conspiracy theory. The problem is that throwing out those items to tell a story can happen in the span of less than a minute. But to provide the facts will require a lot more time and leads to a much less hair-raising conclusion.

Earlier today I wrote about why the FBI was concerned enough to brief then-Attorney General Lynch about possible Russian infiltration of the Trump campaign in March of 2016. But I’ll give you one more example from Bartiromo that also shows up in the Wall Street Journal op-ed by James Freeman that she mentioned. Here’s what Freeman wrote about #4 above:

It’s not clear what an FBI official meant in 2016 when texting that President Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing.” But we can assume that the President was fairly well-informed about the law enforcement agencies reporting to him. Therefore let’s hear from him in detail the full history of how the government came to investigate the presidential campaign of the party out of power.

If we pretend like Bartiromo and Freeman really are interested in Obama’s role in the Russia investigation, we could suggest that they actually read the most definitive piece on that topic at the Washington Post from back in June 2017. There they would learn that the Strzok/Page text about Obama wanting “to know everything” came three days before he met with Vladimir Putin at a G-20 meeting and confronted the Russian president about his interference in the 2016 election. The fact that the text referred to a briefing to prepare him for that confrontation has been confirmed. In other words, the meaning of that text is no longer a question, even if Bartiromo and Freeman fail to acknowledge that fact.

I say all of this to demonstrate that people like Bartiromo don’t have to be concerned with facts to spin their conspiracy theories, but to debunk them is much more complicated. The danger is that a large part of the electorate can’t/won’t take time to learn the facts, and that gives an edge to those who want to spin the “dark conspiracy-mongering” Sargent referred to. In other words, I am concerned that Trump’s strategy is working.

…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.

Trump and his enablers are crafting a narrative that is based on lies and insinuations. With a huge assist from the right-wing media, those lies infuse the conversation with questions about the credibility of the investigation and create an atmosphere of “reasonable doubt.” It should come as no surprise that the strategy is lifted right out of Putin’s playbook.

…insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.

We are about to find out if the American public has the attention span to get to the truth. If not, then anything is possible.

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