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How the right embraced the false claim that Hillary Clinton ‘spied’ on President Donald Trump

The latest filing from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe has been seized on by the conservative media as proof of former president Donald Trump’s claim he was “spied on.” (Getty/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
11 min

On Feb. 7, former Trump administration aide Kash Patel aired an interview with his former boss on Epoch Times TV. Former president Donald Trump predicted there would be “a lot coming” from special counsel John Durham and that Durham would “fully expose” Democratic efforts to tie his campaign to Russia.

“All of the things they said about me and Russia — it was them and Russia,” Trump said. “It was them and Russia, they worked with Russia.”

Four days later, in a filing that appeared in electronic federal court records shortly before midnight, Durham made new claims about the case that exploded across right-leaning media during the weekend.

Coincidentally or not, the filing highlighted something that Patel knew in great detail — a February 2017 meeting between the CIA and former prosecutor Michael Sussmann, who is in Durham’s crosshairs. Patel in 2017 was a Republican Hill aide charged with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. During a 2017 interview with Sussman, Patel indicated he knew about Sussmann’s meeting with the CIA and questioned him closely about it.

Patel did not respond to a request for comment. The deep-in-the-weeds connection between his 2017 inquiries and the Durham probe reflects the unusual web of Durham-focused influencers that helped drive the narrative that the latest Durham filing was a monumental bombshell.

The group includes anonymous Twitter accounts, such as one called “Techno Fog,” conservative journalists, such reporters for the Epoch Times and Red State, and former administration officials such as Patel. Fox News and Newsmax then led the charge on conservative television, often in misleading ways.

Because the Durham filing was made late on Friday, the narrative pushed by this group was largely unchallenged over the weekend. Not until Monday did mainstream journalists begin to look into the filing, adding context and reporting, including responses from Sussmann and other players supposedly implicated. The Sussmann legal team accused Durham of making “prejudicial — and false — allegations that are irrelevant to his Motion and to the charged offense, and are plainly intended to politicize this case, inflame media coverage, and taint the jury pool.”

But by then the horse was out of the barn.

A court filing near midnight

Durham’s 13-page document was ostensibly about a conflict-of-interest issue regarding Sussmann’s counsel Latham & Watkins. Durham in September charged Sussmann with lying to the FBI during a meeting in 2016. The indictment alleged that he told the FBI he was not acting on behalf of clients when in fact, the indictment said, he was secretly acting on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s political team and others. Sussmann has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have denied he ever said he had no clients.

But as part of the document, Durham listed “factual background” that included a series of new, but uncharged allegations. (We created a guide to the allegations earlier this week.)

Marcy Wheeler, a national security reporter who has written skeptically about the Durham probe, said she received a copy of the filing through PACER at 11:33 p.m. Eastern time on Friday. Within an hour, an anonymous Twitter account called “Whispers of Dementia” had tweeted about the filing but only focused on the conflict-of-interest issue.

Early Saturday morning, the gaggle of Durham followers on the right sprang into action and shaped the news coverage that followed.

Hans Mahncke, an Epoch Times reporter and host on Epoch TV, at 9:25 a.m. tweeted: “Holy moly! New Durham filing. Rodney Joffe and his buddies at Georgia Tech monitored Trump’s Internet traffic *while* he was President of the United States.”

His tweet included a screenshot from paragraph five of the filing that highlighted in red the phrase “Executive Office of the President of the United States.”

In many ways, this framing formed the core of the conservative news coverage that followed — a claim that Democrats had spied on Trump, even when he was president. But Durham’s filing, which is written in turgid and confusing prose, did not actually say that Trump’s Internet traffic had been monitored during his presidency.

Joffe, who has not been charged, is an Internet entrepreneur who founded the world’s first commercial Internet hosting company. Statements by a Joffe spokesperson and Sussmann’s legal team insisted that the data, which Sussmann provided to the CIA at the 2017 meeting, pertained to the time before Trump became president — when Barack Obama was still president.

Indeed, 20 minutes later, Wheeler sarcastically tweeted over Mahncke’s tweet: “BREAKING: Cybersecurity of US networks covers cybersecurity of the White House and (as Durham admits) had while Obama was there.” But Wheeler’s corrective tweet made little difference to the emerging slant on the right.

‘Techno Fog’ fans the flames

Mahncke’s tweet did not use a key word — spied. But soon an influential Twitter account tipped the soup.

At 10:25 a.m., the anonymous Techno Fog Twitter account, with nearly 350,000 followers, tweeted: “Special Counsel John Durman [sic]: DNC/Perkins Coie allies — Rodney Joffe, et al. — ‘exploited a sensitive US govt arrangement’ to gather intel on the ‘Executive Office of the President of the U.S.’ They spied on Trump.” This tweet also had a screenshot of paragraph five. Before noon, this person had tweeted a substack analysis that emphasized, in bold type, “they essentially spied on President Trump.”

The 10:25 a.m. tweet also raised the possibility that the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee was actually a plot engineered by the Clinton campaign via Sussmann and Joffe. Never mind that the Russian hack has been extensively documented by a Senate bipartisan report and 12 Russians were indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for their roles. For some of the Durham obsessives, this theory is the Holy Grail.

At 11:11 a.m., the House Judiciary GOP account tweeted over the Techno Fog tweet: “We knew they spied. But it was worse than we thought.” That tweet a few hours later received this response from former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe: “And now you’re finding out why … ” He linked to an interview he gave in October saying he had provided 1,000 intelligence community documents to Durham that should support additional charges.

Ratcliffe did not specifically say this spin was true, but he seemed to validate it, giving an important boost to the narrative. By 2:45 p.m. Red State, an influential conservative website, had posted an article, highlighting Techno Fog’s tweets, titled “John Durham Drops a ‘Shock and Awe’ Filing About Spying on Donald Trump.”

Then former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows weighed in, also tweeting over Techno Fog’s 10:25 a.m. tweet: “They didn’t just spy on Donald Trump’s campaign. They spied on Donald Trump as sitting President of the United States. It was all even worse than we thought.”

Finally, Patel issued a lengthy statement via Twitter that claimed “the Hillary Clinton campaign and her lawyers masterminded the most intricate and coordinated conspiracy against Trump when he was both a candidate and later President of the United States.” (Durham’s filing actually did not claim the Clinton campaign directed this.) Patel separately told Fox News “the lawyers worked to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower and White House servers.”

Fox News then used Patel’s phrase and, in a headline, made it appear that it came from Durham’s filing: “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.”

Interestingly, Patel’s statement made an odd distinction. Rather than refer to the Executive Office of the President, as was mentioned in the filing, he referred to the hacking of “Trump Tower and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.” That suggested he knew something more than what was in the filing.

Patel’s 2017 inquiry

Indeed, as Wheeler highlighted in one of the articles she wrote on the Durham filing, during a congressional interview with Sussmann on Dec. 18, 2017, Patel raised whether Sussmann had had any meetings besides one with the FBI — “with any other government agencies in relation to the DNC hack, Russian involvement in the 2016 elections, or anything like that, or any members of any government agencies.” After some back and forth, Patel specifically asked about a possible meeting with the CIA.

Sussmann said he had a CIA meeting in February 2017.

“My contact [with CIA] did not relate to my specific representation of the DNC, or the Clinton campaign, or the Democratic Party,” Sussmann said, adding “the contact [with CIA] was about reporting to them information that was reported to me about possible contacts, covert or at least nonpublic, between Russian entities and various entities in the United States associated with the — or potentially associated with the Trump Organization.” He noted that the meeting “was in large part, in response to President Obama’s post-election IC [intelligence community] review of potential Russian involvement in the election” but it ended up being scheduled after Trump took office.

In other words, the “evidence” in the Durham filing should not have been especially newsworthy to Patel. He’s known about the meeting and Sussmann’s explanation for more than four years. Moreover, the five-year statute of limitations for charging a crime in connection with the CIA meeting had expired two days before Durham filed the document.

Trump calls for executions

The drumbeat of spin continued. Ric Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence, then appeared on Newsmax at 5:25 p.m. and managed to echo both the “infiltrate” and “spy” narratives.

“Durham’s filing makes it clear,” Grenell said, that people paid by the Clinton campaign were “infiltrating the White House, the executive office of the president. They were spying not only on the campaign of Donald Trump but Donald Trump as president.”

Less than two hours later, Trump issued a hyperbolic statement on the filing, saying it “provides indisputable evidence that my campaign and presidency were spied on by operatives paid by the Hillary Clinton Campaign.” He said the “scandal” was far bigger than Watergate and “in a stronger period of time in our country, this crime would have been punishable by death.”

Trump’s statement provided the perfect runway for days of outraged reactions by prominent Republicans, not to mention commentators, following the script originally provided by the mysterious Techno Fog Twitter account.

It no longer mattered whether it was true or even whether Durham’s allegations were disputed. Within the echo chamber, it was believed.

(Note: In a filing late Thursday, Durham distanced himself from the right-wing media furor in response to Sussmann’s demand that the court strike the “factual background” of the original Durham filing that made these allegations: “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.” Durham confirmed the data collection in question took place in 2016, not under Trump, and he indicated he might make further filings under seal if, for instance, “the safety of individuals” could be threatened — an apparent reference to Trump’s statement about punishment by death.)

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