Lifespan of an alternative fact: How Trump hatches “Spygate” and other baseless conspiracy theories
Well, he did it again.
In just over a week, President Donald Trump took a report that an FBI informant had met with members of his presidential campaign in the early days of the Russia investigation and turned it into “Spygate” — his latest self-serving conspiracy theory that he’s spent days now spouting without evidence.
He began, as he often does, with conjecture — floating the baseless conspiracy, but hedging somewhat by attributing it to someone else. In this case, it was the National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, who said on Fox News last week that there is “probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.”
“Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI “SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT,” Trump tweeted, apparently in response to the May 17 Fox & Friends segment. “If so, this is bigger than Watergate!”
The FBI does not appear to have been “spying” on his campaign for politically motivated purposes, as he suggested in a May 20 tweet calling for an investigation. The agency is believed to have had the informant meet with campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page after receiving evidence of suspicious contacts the two had with Russia.
That didn’t stop Trump from entering the next phase of his conspiracy-theorizing, in which he recites the unverified claim as if it’s fact — with no hedging or qualification.
“Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State,” he tweeted early Thursday. “They go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before! What goes around, comes around!”
It was a familiar process — and one he’s relied on several times to upend a national conversation, muddy the waters and establish a counter-narrative for his supporters to use to attack his political opponents and the media.
“Trump is very successful at highjacking narratives,” Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, said in an email. “I think that the public conversation about politics operates on several levels and Trump seeks to control whatever he can.”
Trump is known for his propensity to make false, exaggerated and misleading statements — even in the face of hard proof to the contrary. But his conjuring of conspiracy theories, particularly regarding the Russia investigation, has appeared especially strategic.
Consider his wild March 2017 claim that former President Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
“This is Nixon/Watergate,” Trump tweeted. “Bad (or sick) guy!”
It was unclear at the time what had triggered the tweets, and he offered no evidence to support his assertions. Still, the outburst inspired his allies on Capitol Hill to look into the matter — and led to headlines in major media outlets pondering if there was any truth to the accusation.
Of course, Trump’s own Department of Justice would later determine that there were “no records” to support the president’s claims, but the veracity of the assertion never really mattered. After Trump made the accusation against Obama, a CBS News poll found that nearly three-quarters of Republicans believed the president was wiretapped by his predecessor.
“It’s like a circus prank performed by a trained bear,” Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and vocal Trump critic, said by email. “It only convinces the audience that came there to see it. Without the completely credulous, entirely hypnotized nature of the Trump audience, these messages fall completely flat.”
But, according to Mercieca, while his messaging may not play well beyond his base, it “introduces doubt on both sides of the question.”
First, he spins the story for his supporters, she said. Then, his framing of the story is “repeated at a second level through mainstream news sources and opinion leaders who are attempting to discredit his spin,” but while using his terminology, such as “witch hunt” — the phrase he’s used to brand special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
“Repeating his spin and using his terms ... helps to further circulate his framing,” Mercieca said. “Even when his frame is brought up and debunked it helps him because we remember the frame and it introduces doubt on both sides of the question — now Trump’s frame is possibly true, or at least up for debate.”
During an interview at the Deadline Club Awards Dinner in New York on Monday, 60 Minutes journalist Leslie Stahl recounted asking Trump after his victory in the 2016 election why he continued to attack the press.
“You know why I do it?” Stahl remembered Trump saying. “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
“He absolutely has tried to discredit the press to his advantage,” Mercieca said. “Even though the media do not mostly report the spin as he would have it, they still cover him and his spin, which helps him with disseminating his narratives.”
Trump is not the first figure to similarly propagandize, Mercieca noted. But, she said, “the rapidity with which Trump can propagandize and the number of people who can help him to spread his messages quickly” is unique.
In doing so, he’s managed to “provide a coherent narrative for those who live inside of the Trump-created bubble” — something that his critics have not yet been able to counter because Mueller has yet to reveal the whole story regarding the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia or the president’s potential obstruction of justice.
“They have a narrative and it cannot be pierced until another coherent narrative emerges to replace it,” she said. “We don’t yet have that narrative.”
It remains to be seen if “Spygate” will catch on the way Trump’s other famous brandings — ”Crooked Hillary,” “witch hunt,” “fake news” — have, but he already appears to have succeeded in weaponizing the term.
The DOJ this week allowed members of Congress, along with Trump lawyer Emmet Flood, to be briefed on the reported informant — something critics, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), slammed as “completely inappropriate.”
Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a joint statement with other Democratic leaders after the briefing Thursday that “nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a ‘spy’ in the Trump Campaign, or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols.”
But Trump has continued to push his “Spygate” conspiracy, suggesting Friday that Democrats and federal law enforcement officials may have engaged in “illegal” conduct in investigating his campaign.
“Can anyone even imagine having Spies placed in a competing campaign, by the people and party in absolute power, for the sole purpose of political advantage and gain?” Trump tweeted Friday morning. “And to think that the party in question, even with the expenditure of far more money, LOST!”