This conspiracy theory was itself the bastard child of another Trumpian fantasy: his claim that President Barack “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” Trump tweeted that on March 4, 2017, to distract attention from the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had just recused himself from the Justice Department investigation of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump must have known that this investigation would uncover unsavory and even illegal conduct — as in fact it did — and he decided to counterpunch by inventing wrongdoing on the part of his foes.
The only problem was that there was absolutely no evidence of any wiretapping of Trump Tower — a fact confirmed in December 2019 by the Justice Department inspector general after an extensive investigation. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, came to Trump’s rescue on March 22, 2017, by holding a news conference to announce that the real scandal was the unmasking of members of the “Trump transition team” in surveillance transcripts.
That was all the right-wing outrage machine needed to get into gear. Trump himself posted the first of 19 tweets about unmasking (including retweets) on April 1, 2017, touting it as “big news.” The pseudo-scandal reached another level on May 7, 2020. On that day, Richard Grenell — the Trump propagandist temporarily installed as acting director of national intelligence — was filmed by a conveniently pre-positioned Fox “News” camera marching into the Justice Department with a list of all the Obama officials who had asked to unmask the Flynn transcripts.
Never mind that unmasking is a routine occurrence and those who asked for the unmasking could not have known that Flynn’s name would be revealed. Trump thundered that this was “the greatest political scam, hoax in the history of our country.” He demanded that “people should go to jail for this” — “I’m talking with 50-year sentences.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called Flynn’s unmasking a bigger scandal than Watergate. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) claimed this was an event “unprecedented in the 243 years of our nation’s history.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted that “the Obama/Biden administration unmasking” was far worse than Trump walking into the White House without a mask while still contagious with covid-19. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, the Federalist, Fox “News” — all the usual super-spreaders of right-wing conspiracy theories — took up the hue and cry.
As Emily Litella might say: never mind.
On Tuesday, The Post reported that “the federal prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr to review whether Obama-era officials improperly requested the identities of individuals whose names were redacted in intelligence documents has completed his work without finding any substantive wrongdoing.” When not even Barr’s Justice Department, heavily politicized as it is, could find anything wrong, you know the whole story was a nothingburger to begin with.
If Trump, Cornyn, Cruz, Paul, Nunes, Grenell and all the others who shamelessly flogged this faux scandal had a modicum of honesty or decency they would publicly recant and apologize to all of the Obama officials they reviled with no evidence. Dream on. None of the scandalmongers have admitted they were wrong. Many have simply moved on to pushing other phony scandals.
On Tuesday, Trump retweeted lunatic claims that Obama and Biden “may have had Seal Team 6 killed” and that Osama bin Laden was still alive and living in Iran. On Wednesday, Grenell was hyping a front-page story in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post claiming that “smoking gun” emails (allegedly obtained from a computer repair shop in Delaware) show that Joe Biden met an adviser to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma at his son Hunter’s request. The Post wrote that this meeting occurred “less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company.”
That is false — and quite possibly part of a Russian disinformation campaign. The Ukrainian prosecutor wasn’t actually investigating Burisma. He was, in fact, complicit in corruption — which is why Biden demanded, on behalf of the U.S. government and the international community, that he be fired. The Biden campaign also denies that the meeting described by the Murdoch tabloid ever took place.
But facts don’t matter in the Hunter Biden conspiracy theories any more than in the “unmasking” story. The strategy is, as former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon once said, to “flood the zone with shit” to distract attention from Trump’s real wrongdoing. The real scandal is that Trump and his cult followers hurl so many insane accusations — and never recant or apologize. While claiming to be a victim of McCarthyism, Trump is, in fact, its foremost modern practitioner. His mentor, Joseph McCarthy’s henchman Roy Cohn, would be proud of him.