Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury a slew of debunked conspiracy theories about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, not to praise them.
Lo, in the past 365 days, there have been any number of theories floated about how Mueller’s probe has been tainted by bias, improper behavior or the destruction of evidence. Over and over, those theories have been dismantled, undercut or disproved. Yet, like the tide, a new theory soon washes ashore.
On Tuesday came the latest example. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn appeared in court in Virginia to be sentenced after a plea agreement in which he admitted to lying to federal investigators. That Flynn willingly met with two FBI agents in his office in the White House in January 2017 has been cited as evidence from Mueller’s detractors that Flynn was tricked into violating the law. In court, though, Flynn denied that, telling Judge Emmet G. Sullivan that he was not entrapped by the FBI.
But again, that’s only the most recent example. Let’s review a solid year of various theories being dashed against the rocks, even as new theories crest somewhere offshore.
RIP Dec. 18, 2017: The Strzok-Page “insurance policy” tweet. This is a good place to start because it serves as a reminder that even debunked theories can persist in the ether.
Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were, as you probably know, two FBI employees who were involved in a romantic relationship during the 2016 campaign. When Mueller was appointed in May 2017, each went to work on his team. Mueller soon learned, though, that over the campaign’s course, the two had exchanged text messages often disparaging or critical of then-candidate Donald Trump. Page left the special counsel’s team, and Strzok was removed from it.
One message, revealed last year, had Strzok writing to Page in August 2016: “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way [Trump] gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
Given Strzok’s role as one of the originators of the Russia investigation, the comment was interpreted as demonstrating a political motive. It seemed to suggest, it was argued, that he was pointing to the investigation into Russian interference and possible coordination with Trump’s campaign — which began at the end of July 2016 — as something that could be used as leverage against Trump in the then-unlikely event that he won the election.
One year ago, though, the Wall Street Journal reported that Strzok had explained the text to colleagues as encouraging the investigation to continue so that, should Trump win, possible administration appointees would have been vetted. He wanted to be ready, in other words, in case Trump won and one of those under investigation was tapped for a senior position.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. Trump won and he tapped Flynn to serve as his national security adviser — over warnings offered to Trump by former president Barack Obama.
RIP Jan. 25, 2018: The deleted text messages. The text messages came to light because they were sent on government phones. The FBI regularly collects messages sent from such devices — but an error in that collection tool that affected about a tenth of employee phones meant that no messages were collected for several months in 2015 and 2016.
This was quickly seized by Mueller critics as proof that evidence was being hidden. Missing messages? What nefarious interactions might the two of them have had?
In short order, there was an update: Using various recovery tools, thousands of messages between the pair were recovered from their old phones. None was a smoking gun proving that the investigation originated from political bias.
RIP Jan. 25, 2018: The anti-Trump “secret society” in the FBI. At the same time that the FBI announced the recovery of those messages, a briefly burning theory was being put to rest.
“Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing,” Page wrote on the day after the election. “Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”
A secret society! There was a cabal in the FBI organizing to opposed President Trump only hours after his victory!
Beyond the idea that members of a secret society would text about being members of a secret society using the term “secret society,” there were some other problems with the theory, including a lack of evidence that it existed. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who had advocated the theory, soon backed off it.
The calendars, though, were real. They were gag gifts featuring shirtless pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
RIP Feb. 22, 2018: The judge in the Flynn case exposing government misbehavior. Well before the sentencing brouhaha Tuesday, Sullivan was the centerpiece of another theory.
In that case, it was speculated that Sullivan’s demand that prosecutors produce “any exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession” related to Flynn’s plea. Now why would Sullivan make that demand if he didn’t think there existed evidence that proved Flynn was innocent?
Well, because Sullivan always asks prosecutors to release such evidence. Because he oversaw the government’s prosecution of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, in which key evidence was withheld, Sullivan established a practice of issuing a standing order to turn such evidence over. He did so in the Flynn case — and it was quickly misinterpreted.
Clearly, the government didn’t turn over evidence proving that Flynn was innocent.
RIP May 21, 2018: The spy in the Trump campaign. Trump himself launched the idea that his campaign was under surveillance with a March 2017 tweet claiming that Trump Tower’s phones had been wiretapped. They hadn’t, but the tweet spurred a cottage industry in efforts to prove that the campaign had been under improper investigation for months.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that a retired professor had contacted several people who worked with Trump’s campaign on behalf of the FBI to try to learn about possible connections with Russia. That professor was eventually revealed as Stefan A. Halper, who met with campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page as well as Sam Clovis, who helped lead the campaign’s foreign policy team.
In short order, Trump dubbed this “SPYGATE."
But the revelation that Halper was the informant working with the FBI actually proved that Trump’s campaign wasn’t being spied on. Halper contacted Page and Papadopoulos only after they had already been implicated with ties to Russia. The FBI investigation began formally in late July; Halper only contacted Papadopoulos and Clovis in September. Nor did he work in the campaign, as Trump and others had alleged.
RIP June 7, 2018: OCONUS lures. Yet another Strzok text kicked up a storm in early June, when a random Twitter user noted that Strzok in December 2015 asked Page whether she had gotten “all our oconus lures approved?”
“OCONUS” means outside the contiguous United States. “Lures,” it was offered, referred to spies. Spies outside the United States? Was there a Halper-type person in place as far back as December 2015? Trump tweeted that he thought so.
The only problem? There was no connection at all drawn between that text message and Trump. Strzok’s job was counterintelligence, meaning that he would be in the practice of setting up intelligence assets overseas. (That’s also why he helped initiate the Russia investigation, itself a counterintelligence operation.) The OCONUS theory quickly faded.
RIP July 22, 2018: The warrant to surveil Page was politically motivated. Halper reached out to Page before the formal investigation began — but after Page visited Moscow in early July 2016. (Page was already on the FBI’s radar, having been interviewed by them both in 2013 and earlier in 2016.)
Page also featured in the dossier of reports compiled on behalf of an attorney working for the campaign of Hillary Clinton by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele. That information made its way into the FBI’s formal request for a warrant to surveil Page in October 2016, under a law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
That the FISA warrant included information from the Steele dossier was seen as hopelessly flawed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a stalwart Trump defender who came under scrutiny in early 2017 for his efforts to defend Trump’s wiretapping allegation. Nunes’s staff put together a memo making what they argued was a definitive case that the Page warrant was improperly biased and inaccurate — and therefore, that the Trump investigation itself was flawed.
A few caveats were obvious at the outset: Page had left the campaign by the time the warrant was issued, and the investigation into Trump’s campaign had already begun.
But with the release of the Nunes memo in February and the release of a July response from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee that Nunes chaired, his argument was revealed as riddled with problems. The Clinton campaign wasn’t identified as a sponsor of the dossier, no, but the FISA warrant did indicate that the information was compiled by a biased source. How much of the warrant was based on the dossier wasn’t clear — but the warrant was also renewed three times, each time gaining additional information used to justify the reapplication.
RIP Dec. 13, 2018: Strzok and Page’s iPhones were wiped clean. Last week, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General released a report assessing the cause of those missing messages from Strzok’s interactions with Page. Were they, in fact, a function of bias within the FBI?
Well, no. The IG reported that, as had been said at the time of the messages' recovery, it was a technology problem that went wider than Strzok and Page. But the report also introduced a new conspiracy theory: iPhones given to Strzok and Page while they worked for the special counsel had been wiped clean! No text messages were recovered!
The IG report introduced that theory — and also debunked it. Beyond the fact that the phones were only used well after the investigation began, decreasing the likelihood they would reveal new information about its genesis, the report also noted that wiping phones when returned to the government was standard practice.
What’s more, the official in charge of taking in the phones told the IG that Strzok’s phone had been reviewed — and it appeared that there weren’t any text messages on it anyway.
RIP Dec. 13, 2018: Michael Flynn was set up. Flynn himself admitted in court that he hadn’t been entrapped by the FBI.
But just a few hours later, speaking from behind the lectern in the White House press briefing room, press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that, despite Flynn’s comments, he’d been ambushed by the FBI.
Just because a conspiracy theory is proved wrong doesn’t make it go away.