There’s been some effort by President Trump and his allies to perform political CPR on his theory that his 2016 campaign effort was riddled with FBI-sponsored spies, but for the most part the theory is already fading.
The theory, as you may be aware, is that Trump and his team were the targets of politically motivated surveillance by a tainted FBI, which paid people to infiltrate Trump’s team to suss out damaging information to tip the scales for the Democrats in 2016. There are a lot of obvious problems with that theory, beginning with the fact that a political effort to affect the 2016 election in favor of Trump would have had the FBI revealing the investigation into Trump’s aides in late October, not a renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Working backward, though, there are other problems, including the lack of evidence that the FBI investigation had any spies in Trump’s campaign, a claim that hinges on a Britain-based professor’s outreach to two campaign advisers who were the subjects of FBI investigations. Then there’s the political motivation question, which seemingly derives mostly from other theories that Trump has promulgated: anti-Trump texts messages between two FBI employees, and a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant issued in October 2016.
Defenders of the spying theory will be quick to point out modifying factors that suggest Trump’s spying allegations are accurate. It’s a tactic that has been used a lot over the past 16 months, picking out one minor detail that runs contrary to a sweeping debunking of a theory and using that detail to suggest the theory must therefore be broadly correct. So be it.
What’s undercut Trump’s theory isn’t the media’s analysis of its components. What’s undercut the theory is that even people who might be expected to be Trump allies aren’t defending it. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the most consistent and fervent defender of Trump’s various theories, has been largely mute after a Justice Department briefing on the informant who aided the FBI. A deadly blow was dealt by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who came away from the briefing arguing that the FBI hadn’t done anything improper. Gowdy’s not afraid of partisan fights; he led the lengthy investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
We’ve seen this pattern before. Trump and his allies have consistently tried to undercut the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign with broad theories about a conspiracy within the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama and even continuing into Trump’s presidency.
Let’s consider three that preceded what Trump called “spygate.” (The graph below shows relative interest over time, with the height of each section correlated loosely to how much Google search interest each received.)
Early one Saturday morning in March 2017, Trump announced to the world that he’d discovered a stunning abuse of power by the Obama administration.
This wasn’t true, as intelligence agencies noted in short order. No phones at Trump Tower were tapped. There was an investigation into Trump’s campaign and people working for the campaign, as former FBI director James B. Comey admitted publicly in late March. But Trump was alleging a specific act directed by Obama, for which there was no evidence.
Soon after, the allegation evolved to focus on that investigation into Trump’s team. To preserve the assessment that Obama and the Democrats broadly had committed an untoward act, White House staffers tipped off Nunes that Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice had unmasked the identities of Trump allies in communications with foreign actors. (Generally, Americans who are participants in conversations with foreign individuals under surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies have their identities hidden to minimize the extent to which Americans are being surveilled.)
In April, though, Congress was briefed on the material that Nunes alleged showed improper behavior. Democratic and Republican officials who spoke with NBC News indicated they saw no wrongdoing. The issue faded.
In early December, The Washington Post reported that a senior FBI official named Peter Strzok had been removed from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team after it was discovered that he had exchanged text messages with an FBI lawyer named Lisa Page in which the two disparaged Trump during the campaign. Text messages between Strzok and Page trickled out slowly, with allies of Trump pointing to various indications of bias demonstrated by the two. That Strzok was involved in both the investigation into Clinton’s email server and the start of the investigation into Trump’s campaign has been highlighted by Trump’s allies.
There have been overreaches. On Jan. 22 of this year, Gowdy and Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) alleged that texts between Strzok and Page suggested the existence of a “secret society” that, they hinted, was actively working against Trump. The text was later described as a joke.
The texts are one of the only direct examples of FBI agents demonstrating a political opposition to Trump, and so they’ve had significant staying power. In early February, Google interest in the texts (as measured by searches for “Strzok”) had faded. There was a new burst of energy after new texts were revealed Feb. 7, focused on what Trump allies claimed was Obama attempting to interfere in the investigation into Clinton’s email server. It was quickly revealed that that’s not what they were.
The Carter Page FISA warrant
One reason interest in the Strzok-Page texts faded was that attention soon turned to an allegation that a FISA warrant issued against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was improperly predicated on partisan information collected by a former British intelligence officer working indirectly for the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. A Nunes staffer compiled a memo laying out the case for how the application for that warrant was intentionally improperly constructed to target the Trump campaign. Conservatives began to push for the memo to be released.
Then it was released — and it didn’t live up to the hype. Its central contentions were quickly disputed by Democrats on the House committee Nunes leads, which essentially ended the discussion of the subject — though only after it attracted a great deal of media and Google attention.
Even without that Democratic rebuttal, though, the claim that the Russia investigation was flawed because of the Page FISA warrant was iffy. Page was no longer part of the campaign when the warrant was granted, for example. Page is only one part of the investigation into Russian interference efforts in 2016, which, as the Nunes memo itself admitted, began in late July with a revelation about another campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos.
None of these issues has vanished entirely. Trump tweeted about the allegedly biased FISA warrant in mid-March.
None of these four alleged scandals has lived up to the hype with which they were presented. None has suggested any rampant anti-Trump bias within the Department of Justice or any actions by the FBI that were obviously politically motivated. There’s been no evidence presented at all that the nonpublic investigations into Trump’s campaign in any way hurt his (successful!) electoral efforts.
It is the case, though, that each new proposed conspiracy adds on to the ones that came before to suggest a broader conspiracy than is warranted from considering the evidence itself. If you believed that the unmasking was a scandal showing bias by Obama’s team, the revelation of the Strzok-Page texts only fed into that. The Carter Page FISA warrant added another layer. Then: Of course Obama spied on the Trump campaign — look at everything else they did!
One of the features of political debate in the past few years has been the slow accretion of new information from which conspiracy theories can be assembled like Legos: the WikiLeaks document dumps used to build up a case against Clinton in 2016. Each new report about Trump’s team’s contacts with Russians, many of which do little to bolster the case for collusion. The various revelations outlined above.
The only remaining question, then, is, what theory of bias against Trump comes next?