The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jerome Corsi is a Harvard-trained conspiracy kingpin. But is he the link between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign?

Jerome Corsi, right-wing commentator and conspiracy theorist, speaks during an interview in New York on Tuesday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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Three letters almost always trail his name: PhD.

The academic credential followed him to Washington in his role as bureau chief for Infowars, the disinformation empire founded by Alex Jones. It appears on the front covers of his many published books. And he brandished it on, the right-wing Internet forum where he used ethnic and gay slurs against Muslims and Hillary Clinton, respectively, and called Katie Couric and John Lennon “communists.”

These are the phantasmagoric visions of Jerome Corsi, whose hate-filled ravings enjoy the air of authority because he earned a graduate degree in political science from Harvard in 1972. Now, he could help establish whether there were links between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Corsi’s path into President Trump’s orbit is a study in political disinformation. It also shows how conspiracy doesn’t spring fully formed from the dark corners of the Internet, but sometimes has roots as well in American academia, which can lend an imprimatur to nonsense.

“Rights of dissent have always been incredibly fragile,” Corsi observed in his nuanced PhD dissertation, which discussed state power and citizen activism following the turbulence of the 1960s and concluded that liberal norms rested on “the restraint and respect of political activists and government authorities alike.” His writing was supervised by Michael Walzer, the political theory luminary, and drew on the insights of Laurence Tribe, the prominent Harvard Law School constitutional scholar who also taught Barack Obama.

But it’s not Corsi’s political science research that’s getting attention now. It’s his correspondence with Roger Stone, the longtime Trump adviser, about the conspiracy theorist’s apparently advance knowledge of the release by WikiLeaks of stolen emails damaging to Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. A draft document quoting the exchange offers a peek into the ordinarily secret evidence-gathering effort conducted by Robert S. Mueller III, suggesting that the special counsel is amassing evidence that Trump associates and confidantes may have been cultivating the assistance of WikiLeaks in their effort to undermine the Democrats in the bitter 2016 contest.

So, too, the controversy offers a window into Corsi’s worldview and prominence, bringing the prolific conspiracy theorist under a sharp spotlight — quite distinct from the glare of the lights in Fox News studios, where he has grown so comfortable over the years.

Corsi’s pedigree, observed Quentin Fottrell, an Irish columnist and critic, “gives an elevated social status and is designed to bathe him in a more flattering light than, considering his allegations, he deserves. Or to put it another way: PhD + Innuendo = QED.”

Now that he is the target of allegations related to the probe into interference in the 2016 election, his dubious claims to expertise are all the more noteworthy. The draft document, prepared by the special counsel as part of failed plea negotiations, quotes an email from Corsi to Stone sent in July 2016.

Conservative author and Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi says he is rejecting plea deal from special counsel

“Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging,” Corsi wrote, referring to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who has been living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London since 2012. The email was sent while Corsi was traveling in Italy, as The Post reported.

He added in the email: “Time to let more than [Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta] to be exposed as in bed w enemy if they are not ready to drop [Clinton]. That appears to be the game hackers are now about."

Corsi earlier this month said he expected to be indicted on a charge of lying to investigators. But he maintained his innocence this week, as he announced that he would refuse a plea deal.

“I never met Assange, I never talked to him,” he told Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Manuel Roig-Franzia. “I’m convinced my memory is correct that I didn’t have a source that connected me to Assange. I really don’t think so.”

Corsi provided early alert to Stone about WikiLeaks release, according to draft special counsel document

Corsi, 72, is no run-of-the-mill conservative gadfly. He has parlayed his academic pedigree into a central place in the right-wing attack apparatus, which has benefited from his no-holds-barred approach.

He didn’t immediately enter the political ring, instead working in financial services for a stretch after graduate school. In 1995, an investment project in post-Communist Poland miscarried, costing his investors a total of $1.2 million, according to the Boston Globe. Meanwhile, he developed a presence in the right-wing fringes of the Internet.

The onetime scholar rose to prominence in 2004 when he provided the intellectual foundation for the spurious attempt to undermine the war record of John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee who earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his service in Vietnam. With John O’Neill, a Vietnam veteran and lawyer, Corsi published “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.” Their account, which accused the Democrat of lying about his service, was thoroughly discredited — but not before it before it became a major headache for Kerry in the closing days of his campaign against incumbent George W. Bush.

The book became a no. 1 New York Times bestseller even as the paper delivered this stern warning in its review: “If John Kerry loses the presidential election, ''Unfit for Command' . . . will go down as a chief reason.” The work lives on in the term “swiftboating” as shorthand for an untrue political attack. Among the book’s boosters was Fox’s Sean Hannity, now a mouthpiece for Trump’s agenda.

And so the book, laced with false or misleading claims, became a template for Corsi’s later work — and for the present political moment.

On his YouTube channel and in appearances on Fox, he is ungoverned by principles of fact and accuracy. He is a 9/11 truther and an early critic of George Soros, the Holocaust survivor and liberal philanthropist whose name has become a catchword for far-right innuendo about Jews, immigration and national security. He has professed his belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory, citing posts on feverish online message boards as he quests to decipher the coded meaning of a pen on Trump’s desk.

In wide-ranging written work, he has not been hemmed in by conventional publishing standards. His most recent account, “Killing the Deep State: The Fight to Save President Trump,” was published by Humanix Books, which is owned by conservative Newsmax Media, whose founder, Christopher Ruddy, is a Trump surrogate.

His subtly titled “The Obama Nation,” published in 2008, is a grab bag of fantasies about the nation’s first black president, whom he labeled a noncitizen and a homosexual. Corsi’s 2011 follow-up, “Where’s the Birth Certificate?: The Case That Barack Obama Is Not Eligible to Be President,” reads like a playbook for Trump’s repeated insistence that Obama was not born in the United States.

This outlandish claim was Trump’s path to political prominence. Once there, he found an eager ally in Corsi, who earned White House press credentials last year as the Washington bureau chief of Infowars, which has been banned by major social media platforms and technology companies.

But Trump’s White House offered a safe space for Corsi, who is now battling to save the president from figures whom he sees as deep-state saboteurs, Mueller chief among them. The former FBI chief, in whose crosshairs he now finds himself, “joined forces with the Democratic Party, the mainstream media, and Deep State intelligence agency operatives who are out to destroy the Trump administration,” Corsi wrote in his 2018 book.

He hasn’t always been so antagonistic to Democrats. Among the party’s adherents was his father, to whom he dedicated “The Obama Nation” by thanking him “for the care with which he first introduced me to politics.”

Louis Corsi was a left-wing activist and a leader of the United Transportation Union, a labor group that he helped organize in 1965, according to an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Lou was so far to the left that he would have made Barack look conservative,” a classmate of Jerome’s told the paper.

Jerome Corsi may help special counsel Robert S. Mueller III determine whether Roger Stone coordinated with WikiLeaks. Here is what you need to know about him. (Video: The Washington Post)

He raised the young Corsi in East Cleveland. A champion debater in high school and college, he graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 1968 before he went on to Harvard.

Corsi had already started drifting right in his teens. He found work in 1967 with Edward Howard & Co., a public relations company, and aided Republican Seth Taft in his effort to gather opposition research about Carl Stokes, who was elected that year as Cleveland’s first black mayor. Corsi’s responsibilities included following the trailblazing black candidate at his public appearances — “reporting back the contents of his speeches and any relevant information regarding attendees, crowd size, and audience reaction,” as he would write.

“Those were formative years for me, both as a young man advancing my education and becoming involved with politics,” Corsi told his hometown paper in 2008.

A decade later, he would offer a different view of his political involvement. He told followers of his live stream earlier this month that two months of interviews with Mueller’s team had turned his brain to “mush.”

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