The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The viral Twitter thread that explains right-wing conspiracy theorizing — if only inadvertently

Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill in July 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Tucker Carlson did something unusual in his program Friday evening. The Fox News host, who generally spends an extended period of time in his show opining in aggressive terms on the news of the day, added a second voice to the mix: a lengthy Twitter thread written by a podcaster named Darrell Cooper. The “really smart” thread, Carlson declared, “crystallized” why supporters of former president Donald Trump believe that the 2020 election was rigged.

In broad strokes, Cooper’s argument is that the inherent trust Trump supporters had in institutions like the federal government collapsed in the wake of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This was a group that, in his words, “encourage their sons to enlist in the Army, and hate ppl who don’t stand for the Anthem,” now seeing how what many on the right refer to as the Deep State could array its power against an outsider.

“This is profoundly disorienting,” Cooper wrote. “Many of them don’t know for certain whether ballots were faked in November 2020, but they know for absolute certain that the press, the FBI, etc would lie to them if there was. They have every reason to believe that, and it’s probably true.”

It is indisputably the case that Trump supporters accept claims about election fraud in part because of their diminished confidence in institutions such as government and the media. What is subject to dispute, though, is the cause of that lack of confidence. While Cooper suggests that it’s emergent, it isn’t. While Cooper argues that it’s a function of investigations into Trump, it’s actually a function of partisan responses — largely but not entirely on the right — driven by Trump himself. And, most important, what Cooper presents as the indisputable facts undergirding his argument are often misleading or false and a function of partisan defenses of Trump that are common in conservative media.

That last point is the most important one since it's the thread's linchpin. Everything follows from the “actual, confirmed facts” that Cooper argues are the spur for the distrust in the government.

“The FBI/etc spied on the 2016 Trump campaign using evidence manufactured by the Clinton campaign,” he writes at one point. “We now know that all involved knew it was fake from Day 1 (see: Brennan's July 2016 memo, etc)." He later makes clear that he's referring in large part to the dossier of reports written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of a firm hired by a law firm working for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

“We know as fact: a) The Steele dossier was the sole evidence used to justify spying on the Trump campaign,” Cooper adds later, “b) The FBI knew the Steele dossier was a DNC op, c) Steele’s source told the FBI the info was unserious, d) they did not inform the court of any of this and kept spying.”

You’re probably familiar with this version of events. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant obtained against former Trump campaign official Carter Page in October 2016 plays a central role in the overlapping ideas that the campaign was under close scrutiny and that the scrutiny was a function of false information from Steele. But this is obviously not true, for a lot of reasons. For one, Page had left the campaign by the time the warrant was obtained, a timeline that wouldn’t prevent investigators from looking at his interactions with campaign officials but does seem to undercut the idea that the campaign, not Page, was the target. Page was an adviser not known to have been particularly close to central figures. The feds had already identified red flags around a number of other campaign officials, including the onetime campaign manager; they targeted an ancillary unpaid adviser instead? For another, the warrant did depend on the Steele dossier, information that has not held up as substantiated. It was not the only information included in the warrant application, however, nor was there no other reason to scrutinize Page. He’d already been on the FBI’s radar after a suspected Russian spy identified him as a possible target for recruitment and Page had in fact traveled to Moscow that July, where he came into contact, however briefly, with a senior official in the Russian government.

The reason that the Page warrant is being presented as the point of genesis for all of this is not because it was. It’s because, as Cooper makes clear, it’s useful to pretend that it was. If everything flowed from this one FISA warrant using dodgy information, the entire probe is legitimately smelly. But the reality is that several others linked to the campaign — including campaign manager Paul Manafort, another adviser named George Papadopoulos and eventual national security adviser Michael Flynn — all had ties of their own to Russia. The central investigation reportedly began when the FBI learned that Papadopoulos had informed an Australian diplomat that Russia had material incriminating Clinton, something he’d learned from a person he was hoping might connect Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When stolen material began being published in July 2016, Australia tipped off the U.S. government.

The contemporaneous memo from then-CIA Director John Brennan to which Cooper refers is part of a relatively new effort to retrofit everything to drop it in Hillary Clinton’s lap but it, too, needs to be placed into context. Brennan took notes on a briefing with then-President Barack Obama in which he wrote that “[w]e’re getting additional insight into Russian activities” and which mentions “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on 28 July of a proposal … to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services.” A separate CIA memo sent to the FBI in September (before the Page warrant) mentions a surveilled exchange in which such a plan from Clinton’s team was mentioned.

The implication has often been that Clinton was trying to engineer this scandal to harm Trump and the Obama administration played along. But there’s no evidence of that. Clinton’s team was already publicly trying to link Trump to Russia, using that same document dump of stolen material, material that The Washington Post and others had already linked to Russian hacking. If the government wasn’t already examining how Russia was stealing and releasing material in an effort to influence the election, it was derelict. What’s more, there were links between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors, which Cooper doesn’t mention. Manafort gave internal polling information to a man that the federal government and his own second-in-command believed to be linked to Russian intelligence. What does that have to do with Carter Page, exactly?

Cooper is certainly correct that there was a lot of chatter about explicit collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors that has remained unproven, chatter that was often a function of Trump opponents making claims that weren’t supportable with the then- or currently available evidence. But it is not true that the Steele dossier was the genesis for all of this and to claim that it was reveals either obvious dishonesty or a deeply blinkered understanding of what happened.

Over and over, the stated facts that Cooper argues necessarily led freedom-loving patriots to new skepticism of the government is, instead, warmed-over conservative framing that elides nuance in favor of certainty. There's plenty of “everyone knows” things that aren't true or that aren't accurately depicted. For example, he repeatedly comes back to a story from Time magazine describing how an informal group of progressive activists and business organizations worked to defend the integrity of the election in the face of Trump's repeated attacks on it (and congressional inaction), framing this effort as deeply nefarious.

“It's a fact, according to Time Magazine, that mass riots were planned in cities across the country if Trump won,” Cooper writes at one point. “Sure, they were 'protests', but they were planned by the same people as during the summer, and everyone knows what it would have meant.”

Read the Time article for yourself and gauge if that's an accurate summary. It isn't, at all. There was a system created to mobilize protests in the likely event that Trump tried to overturn the results of a closer election — protests that probably would have looked similar to the ones that emerged in the wake of the 2016 election in various cities. But Cooper needs to present this as a preparation for violence because it allows him to both present the left as being the ones to legitimize political violence (a common argument after Jan. 6) and because it allows him to suggest that judges wouldn't take up election fraud lawsuits out of fear for their own personal safety. The idea, in other words, is that random election officials would speak out against the false fraud claims, invoking threats of violence, but that judges who enjoy much more robust security assistance were too afraid to contest them. This, too, depends on the idea that the left is more violent and dangerous than the right.

Cooper admits that most of the fraud claims made after the election are bogus nonsense, but argues that there were legitimate concerns, like how election laws were changed — a bit of rhetoric also made by politicians who wanted to appeal to Trump's angry base after the election but who wanted to keep their distance from more ludicrous assertions. But that he ascribes the embrace of these ideas to a newfound distrust of the media or of government is ridiculous.

The right has spent decades undercutting confidence in the media, allowing people like Donald Trump to make false claims without the ability of objective observers to push back forcefully. And one set of evolving false claims that Trump made repeatedly was about the motivation for and initiation of the investigation into his presidency — claims now treated as indisputably accurate by his supporters and by Cooper. The distrust in the government that's become rampant on the right in the past few years is not simply a reaction to objective consideration of what occurred. It is largely instead a function of Trump's successful attempts to deflect criticism of himself onto government officials — a success attributable to the conservative media's preference in helping Trump bolster that defense.

Cooper's obviously right that this erosion of confidence in everything besides Trump made it easy for Trump to falsely claim that the election was stolen. Cooper's incorrect, however, in nearly all of his efforts to defend that erosion as warranted. He ended his Twitter thread with a hyperbole that would have pleased Trump himself: “Trump fans should be happy he lost; it might've kept him alive.”

Carlson ended his reading of Cooper's tweets well before that.

“Trump's voters,” Carlson said, “quote, 'are absolutely right that their government is monopolized by a regime that believes they are beneath representation and will observe no limits to keep them getting it.' End quote.”

“That is true,” he added, “and every honest person knows it.”

Tucker Carlson is perhaps not the best person to have vouch for your credibility.