The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turns out federal judges have little patience for Trump’s conspiracy theories

This courtroom sketch depicts former national security adviser Michael Flynn, standing center, flanked by his lawyers, listening to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, right, as he addresses Flynn and points to the American flag inside the courtroom. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

The president of the United States is a certified conspiracy theorist who has suggested that Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered, that millions of illegal votes were cast in 2016 and that Democrats inflated the death count from Hurricane Maria to make him look bad. So it’s no surprise that, to save himself from possible impeachment and prosecution, he spins crazy conspiracy theories to impugn his foes. What is more confounding and dismaying is that so many Republicans and “conservatives” have been so eager to join him in Cloud Cuckoo-Land even though their theories keep exploding like kernels in the popcorn popper.

Remember when Trump claimed that President Barack Obama “had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower”? When he said that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was investigating him because he was angry about a fee dispute at Trump National Golf Club? When he claimed that texts sent between FBI agent Peter Strzok and his girlfriend, Lisa Page, were evidence not only of anti-Trump bias but of “treason”? When he charged that the FBI had infiltrated his campaign with a “spy” to gather political dirt? When he supported Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in claiming that the FBI had obtained a surveillance warrant for Trump adviser Carter Page based solely on a dossier compiled by British ex-spy Christopher Steele without telling the judges that Steele had been hired by political opponents?

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Each of these conspiracy theories is no more. It turns out that no one tapped Trump Tower. That there is zero evidence of Mueller being angry over golf course fees, much less misusing his authority to gain revenge. That Strzok and Page did not conspire against Trump. That the FBI had not infiltrated the campaign but had spoken with an informant on its outskirts to learn about Russian infiltration. And that the FBI investigation into Trump-Kremlin links was prompted not by the Steele dossier but by the admission of a Trump adviser to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

After President Trump called Michael Cohen a "rat" on Dec. 16, for cooperating with federal investigators, Cohen's adviser Lanny Davis chided Trump's language. (Video: Reuters)

Newer conspiracy theories are exploding just as fast. On Sunday, Trump, doing his best imitation of a mafia boss, tweeted that “Michael Cohen only became a ‘Rat’ after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started. They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE!” Not even Cohen’s attorneys dared to make such a bold claim, because they knew FBI agents had a proper search warrant. If they did not, there is no way Cohen would have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to three years in prison, as he was last week.

Trump and his acolytes have also claimed that Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, was entrapped by the FBI into lying — or that he did not lie at all. “They gave General Flynn a great deal,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 13, “because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated — the FBI said he didn’t lie and they overrode the FBI. They want to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements.”

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Trump followers hoped that U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is presiding over Flynn’s case, would back up their claims and toss out his guilty plea. This weekend, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro hailed Sullivan as a “a jurist unafraid of the swamp, a judge who has a track record of calling out prosecutorial misconduct, a man who does not tolerate injustice or abuse of power.”

But instead of raging at the FBI and special counsel, Sullivan raged at Flynn himself — in no small part because his attorneys tried the entrapment defense in their sentencing plea. “Arguably, you sold your country out,” the judge thundered at the shaken defendant at Tuesday’s sentencing hearing. Asked if Flynn was entrapped by the FBI, one of his lawyers answered, “No, your honor,” and Flynn admitted that he knew lying to the FBI was wrong.

And just like that the Trump apologists went from hailing Sullivan as a jurist of uncommon wisdom to denouncing him as another cog in a vast left-wing conspiracy. “Can Flynn receive fair treatment from Sullivan in future?” Washington Examiner correspondent Byron York wondered darkly. How long before it is alleged that Sullivan has a fee dispute at a Trump golf club?

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down what the sentencing delay for former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn means. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Being utterly shameless, Trump does not mind looking foolish by spreading preposterous conspiracy theories. He must figure that he will hoodwink at least a few gullible souls. But, for the life of me, I cannot fathom why so many so-called conservatives are so eager to propagate far-fetched lies on his behalf that are inevitably dispelled almost as quickly as they are created.

When George Santanaya warned that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he could not have imagined that history would be forgotten as quickly as it is today. Trump defenders would be well advised to recall the ignominious fate of previous conspiracy theories before spinning fresh ones.

Read more:

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Two new developments again confirm that Trump’s defenses are cracking

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s power slips away, as Flynn faces possible jail time

Dana Milbank: Michael Flynn’s judge just struck a potent blow for the rule of law

Marc A. Thiessen: The Mueller probe could turn out to be a disaster — for the Democrats

Hugh Hewitt: You know who would love the impeachment process? Trump, of course.