The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A bad two weeks for conservative media’s crusade to find Democratic scandals

John Durham, shown in 2006. (Bob Child/AP)

For the second time in two weeks, the conservative media has distorted and badly stretched the available evidence as it searches for a Democratic scandal. And for the second time in two weeks, significant additional evidence rebutting its claims has been met with a large-scale shrug from the supposed scandal’s many purveyors.

Two weeks ago, it was the idea that the Biden administration was sending crack pipes to addicts across the country — a claim that the Washington Free Beacon reported had been confirmed by an anonymous administration official. The claim was stated as fact by oodles of congressional Republicans and was even the subject of newly introduced legislation.

Except it turned out the official never actually confirmed pipes were being sent as part of harm-mitigation kits, as an editor at the publication acknowledged. To this day, though, the story still says the administration official confirmed the kits “will provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine.”

The latest follows a strikingly similar pattern, as The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler summarizes. Special counsel John Durham had issued a filing with some intriguing allegations: that a tech executive tied to the Clinton campaign “had come to access and maintain dedicated servers for the EOP” — that is, the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Durham said access to the data had been “exploited” “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”

Numerous conservative outlets and lawmakers leaped to the conclusion that this meant the Clinton campaign had spied on Trump while he was in the White House. But even after it was noted Monday that Durham’s filing never actually said this and that the time period referenced appeared to be during the Obama administration — not Trump’s — they pressed forward. The culmination came late Thursday, when Durham issued a new filing implicitly acknowledging conservative media had butchered his allegation. A key figure cited was obviously from the Obama era.

Durham explained, in response to allegations from a defendant that his filing was misleading: “If third parties or members of the media have overstated, understated or otherwise misinterpreted facts contained in the government’s motion, that does not in any way undermine the valid reasons for the government’s inclusion of this information.”

Indeed, this wasn’t terribly surprising. As far back as Monday — shortly after the allegation burst into the mainstream — evidence emerged that it wasn’t the Trump White House that was referenced. A person involved in the data analysis stated that the information collected, to his knowledge, “was nonprivate [domain name system] data from before Trump took office.” In other words: not “spying,” and also not the Trump White House.

Despite that, and despite the fact that Durham never said there was spying on the Trump White House, the march to scandal resumed. It was repeatedly stated as fact — often not even qualified as a possibility or even a likelihood — that the Clinton campaign had spied on Trump’s White House. And there’s little sign of any backpedaling.

A headline from the Washington Examiner stated — and still states — “Durham says Democrat-allied tech executive spied on Trump’s White House office.”

The Daily Mail initially ran a headline stating that the Clinton campaign had “paid a firm to hack [Trump’s] White House servers.” it later changed the headline to state that the campaign had “paid a firm to hack his Trump Towers and White House servers.” (The idea would seem to be that “White House servers” might not in fact be “his” — Trump’s — but the story repeatedly suggests the White House was in fact “his” while summarizing Trump’s response.)

Fox News’s story continues to imply — without stating it directly — that this was the Trump White House. It says the servers targeted were those “belonging to Trump Tower, and later the White House.” A former Trump spokesman played up that latter phrase, though such a timeline appears nowhere in Durham’s filing. (The same story also says Durham’s filing said the Clinton campaign paid someone to “infiltrate” Trump Tower and White House servers, but that word never appears in the filing.)

Perhaps nobody has gone further than Fox and its prime-time lineup, though. On Sunday night, weekend host Steve Hilton stated, “After Trump became president, they hacked the White House.” Sean Hannity added Monday that “without a doubt, unequivocally, the Trump campaign — their campaign, their transition team, even the Trump White House … was spied on by the Clinton campaign.”

Despite Monday bringing both the New York Times fact check and a filing from defendant Michael Sussmann stating that the time period was in fact during Obama’s White House, the effort continued apace. Hannity declared Tuesday that the effort was to “mine from Trump Tower and even the Trump White House to smear Donald Trump.”

Former congressman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said on the same show, “It’s frightening, in the Trump Tower, into President Trump’s apartment and then when he’s in the White House.”

Tucker Carlson said Wednesday that “Hillary Clinton’s minions had spied on Donald Trump’s campaign and on Trump at the White House.” He added Thursday — the same night as the new Durham filing — that Clinton’s “campaign spied on Donald Trump in the White House.”

What comes next is utterly predictable. If conservative media even acknowledges Durham debunked their claims — which is a big “if” given Durham did so somewhat indirectly — the argument will be that, okay, maybe there wasn’t spying on Trump in the White House, but what about collecting data on Trump Tower! (Nevermind that calling this “infiltrating” or “spying” or “hacking” is highly suspect, given the type of data collected.)

This is what happened with crack pipes. It was no longer that the government actually confirmed sending crack pipes, which it didn’t; it was that it was possible that it was about to do so, and maybe the government shouldn’t be involved in harm-mitigation kits for drug users in the first place.

Which, okay, we can debate whether that’s a good idea just as we can debate whether lines might have been crossed by those trying to probe Trump’s connections with Russia. But we should at least start with a base-level understanding of what is and isn’t actually being alleged or in evidence. And for two weeks running now, certain people have been pretty uninterested in being at all discerning about that — both before and after their read on the situation has been shot down.

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