President Trump’s weekend allegations of a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to wiretap his 2016 campaign confused intelligence analysts, befuddled members of Congress and created fresh work for fact-checkers. Within 24 hours of his allegations, made on Twitter, the administration conceded that the president was basing his claim not on closely held information, but on a Breitbart News story quoting the conservative radio host and author Mark Levin.
But in conservative media, where the claim originated, Trump has gotten credit for cracking open a plot by a “deep state” of critics and conspirators to bring down his presidency. And the perpetrator is former president Barack Obama.
“It would [seem] that the ‘Russia hacking’ story was concocted not just to explain away an embarrassing election defeat, but to cover up the real scandal,” wrote Breitbart’s senior editor-at-large Joel Pollak.
“Trump confounds these people because he’s always a step or two ahead,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on Monday. “It’s a direct line to the Democrat Party and Obama and members of the Obama administration that Trump is signaling, ‘You don’t face the usual feckless bunch of opponents who never fight you back.’”
Trump’s wiretap allegations completed a feedback loop that started during the presidential campaign and has gotten sturdier since. The president’s media diet includes cable television news shows, like “Fox and Friends,” where guests and hosts regularly defend him. On Twitter, he frequently elevates stories that grew in conservative talk radio, or on sites like Breitbart News and InfoWars, out of view of a startled mainstream media. Monday’s news cycle demonstrated just how strong the loop was, as Levin himself appeared on Fox News for 12 barely interrupted minutes to share his theory that the alleged wiretapping was a political hit job.
“Donald Trump is the victim. His campaign is the victim,” said Levin, as a Fox News “alert” scrolled over the screen. “These are police state tactics. If this had been done to Barack Obama, all hell would break loose. And it should.”
A spokesman for the former president denied that Obama or a White House official requested surveillance of a U.S. citizen. And FBI Director James B. Comey asked the Justice Department to issue a statement this weekend refuting President Trump’s charge (it has not thus far).
Republicans in Congress tend to give the president the benefit of their doubt. In interviews and comments since Saturday, they have suggested that Trump overstated what was known — conflating, for example, media reports on wiretapping with a growing theory that the Obama administration seeded operatives throughout the government to undo his presidency. But they have paired that critique with promises to study what he’s alleged.
“The president has at his fingertips tens of billions of dollars in intelligence apparatus,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in a Monday interview with CBS News. “I think he might have something there, but if not, we’re going to find out.”
“The good news is there’s a paper trail, there’s a warrant, there’s an application, there’s judicial review,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) in an interview Monday with radio host Laura Ingraham, a die-hard Trump supporter. “And right now the Justice Department is not controlled by President Obama. It’s controlled by Jeff Sessions.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), in a tweet to the president, went even further, saying that Trump “needs to purge Leftists from executive branch before disloyal, illegal and treasonist [sic] acts sink us.”
That story line was building long before Trump embraced it. Its origins were relatively banal. One week after the 2016 election, Obama told members of his campaign group, Organizing for America, that the Trump years would be boom times for activism.
“Now is the time for some organizing,” Obama said, according to a transcript published by the White House at the time. “An election just finished, so it’s not going to be straight political organizing, but it is going to be raising awareness; it’s going to be the work you’re doing in nonprofits and advocacy and community-building. And over time, what’s going to happen is, is that you will reinvigorate and inform our politics in ways that we can’t anticipate.”
Since then, OFA, which has spent years as a punching bag for Democrats who thought it diverted resources from the party, has earned surprising new status as a boogeyman. The rebuilt group has helped promote and organize protests and raucous town hall meetings to pressure Republican members of Congress. On Feb. 18, New York Post columnist Paul Sperry tied together what was publicly known to pin the protests on Obama and OFA.
“It’s a radical [Saul] Alinsky group,” Sperry told Fox News’s Sean Hannity after the story ran. “It’s got a lot of money. And they’re training an army of agitators to sabotage Trump and his policies, while at the same time protecting Obama’s legacy, like ‘Obamacare’ and the ‘dreamers.’ And here is OFA listed prominently on Obama’s new Web site, OFA Organizing for Action.”
In the days after that broadcast, as OFA watched, its Facebook page started to receive angry comments and threats.
“If they ever come to my town I’ll be eagerly awaiting with my 12 gauge loaded with ball and buck,” wrote one commentator, Gary Whitson.
“This site is an American Terrorist site degrading our intelligence with misinformation,” wrote a critic named Don Whitehall. “No shadow government in America”
“OFA is a nonprofit group dedicated to grass-roots organizing, which is exactly what we’ve been doing since 2013,” said communications director Jesse Lehrich. “We have volunteer-led chapters around the country who are working to engage their friends and neighbors to enact positive change in their communities. These conspiracy theories swirling through the conservative media-verse aren’t just perplexing, they’re dangerous.”
The former president has given his blessing to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a project created to help his party undo Republican-drawn legislative maps. He made calls to help his former secretary of labor Tom Perez become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and congratulated him when he won. And he recorded a video for his post-presidential foundation, telling supporters that “true democracy is a project that’s bigger than any one of us.”
Apart from that, Obama has maintained a low profile in the post-election world, with allies acknowledging that he’s been absent as protests have built against his successor. At the NRDC’s Tuesday media briefing, former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. said that the former president was ready to become a “more visible” supporter of the project.
“It’s coming. He’s coming,” said. “And he’s ready to roll.”
That comment caused a minor frenzy with the online right. InfoWars, the conspiracy news site run by Alex Jones, republished a story about the comment, and followed it with rumors about the new activity. “Obama’s goal to ‘oust’ Trump from presidency via impeachment or resignation,” wrote InfoWars commentator Paul Joseph Watson on Thursday. On Friday, the site blew up a report about banks settling with nonprofit groups after fraud lawsuits to tell readers that Obama had “funneled billions to liberal activist groups.”
More mainstream sites have also stoked theories that Obama was pulling strings. Last Wednesday, the Daily Mail published an interview with an unnamed “close family friend,” who claimed that former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett had moved into Obama’s Kalorama home to help “mastermind the insurgency” against Trump.
“The Daily Mail story is completely false,” said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president.
But the Jarrett story went viral on the right; on a Fox Business segment over the weekend, radio host Tammy Bruce cited it as an “undercovered” revelation that demonstrated the forces arrayed against Trump. In her Monday interview with Gowdy, Ingraham argued that a Watergate-level scandal was building — but at one point, she suggested, hopefully, that the president was not simply basing his rhetoric on what was in conservative media.
“He must know something beyond what’s on Breitbart,” Ingraham said.
“I would hope,” said Gowdy, “given the fact that he’s the leader of the free world.”