“McCarthyism” is the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Donald Trump accused FBI agent Peter Strzok, the Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division, of “treason.” Trump Accuses FBI Agent of ‘Treason’. Agent Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team last summer following the discovery of anti-Trump text messages he exchanged with a FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, who was also assigned to Mueller’s team.
Trump’s McCarthyism should come as no surprise to anyone as his long-time attorney (consigliere) for many years was the disreputable Roy Cohn: Joe McCarthy’s henchman and Donald Trump’s mentor. Roy Cohn was eventually disbarred by a New York court for conduct that was ”unethical,” ”unprofessional” and, in one case, ”particularly reprehensible.” The apprentice learned well at the feet of his master.
Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are the cause célèbre in one of several conspiracy theories that have been ginned up by the Trump administration in coordination with its allies in Congress and its GOPropagandists in the conservative media entertainment complex, in particular FAUX News (aka Trump TV).
The mighty Wurlitzer of the right-wing noise machine has been in overdrive this month cranking out multiple conspiracy theories with which to discredit federal law enforcement officials at the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Special Counsel’s office in defense of their “Dear Leader.” This is the kind of thing that you see from state-run propaganda media in authoritarian autocratic regimes.
Philip Bump of the Washington Post has an explainer, Your guide to the anti-FBI conspiracy theories rippling through conservative media:
President Donald Trump lashed out at U.S. intelligence agencies.
In March, Trump publicly accused intelligence agencies of having wiretapped Trump Tower before the election, an accusation that was quickly revealed to be both baseless and untrue. Unlike Trump’s fuming about the then-still-nebulous investigation into meddling, though, the response to Trump’s wiretapping accusation from his allies was to try to defend it — regardless of how challenging it was to defend.
Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus “knew the staff would have to fall into line to prove the tweet correct, the opposite of the usual process of vetting proposed pronouncements,” Howard Kurtz writes in his new book about the Trump administration. Outside the White House, the response was similar, with allies including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) working to prove, if not that Trump Tower was wiretapped, at least that Trump was the focus of an unfair, politically motivated investigation initiated by the Obama administration. The focus of the wiretapping charge evolved into the Obama administration having de-anonymized the identities of Trump allies in surveillance reports, an act that Trump eventually called “the real story.”
(This revelation came after an administration staffer showed Nunes classified documents detailing the unmasking. The White House initially denied being involved in sharing this information.)
Over the past year, this tactic has become pervasive: defending Trump by arguing that it’s actually the president who is the victim of a conspiracy and whipping up whatever evidence is at hand to bolster that claim. This effort has by now spawned nearly as many branches and subparts as the Russia investigation itself — though these offshoots are often ad hoc and unsubstantiated.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen a bumper crop of allegations woven into the Trump defenders’ tapestry. They’ve captured the attention of both conservative media and Republican members of Congress. In light of that, we’ve assembled an overview of the emergent allegations, including, where appropriate, the reasons that they might be considered with a grain of salt.
The Christopher Steele Dossier
What it is: The dossier is not a new addition to the conversation, but it’s a necessary starting point.
Compiled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele on behalf of an investigative firm called Fusion GPS, the dossier is a collection of 17 documents detailing various conversations Steele had with a number of sources. Many of those conversations focused on the idea that the Trump campaign and perhaps Trump himself had been in contact with or compromised by Russian actors before Election Day. Beyond some broad-stroke links, little of the dossier has been corroborated publicly since it became public at the beginning of 2017.
Steele’s research, which began in June 2016, was funded by the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. (Fusion GPS began investigating Trump after being hired by the conservative news site Free Beacon.)
What it supposedly means: Some reporting, including from Fox News, has suggested that Steele’s findings were used as part of the FBI’s application for surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA). (The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016.) The idea is that if the dossier was used to obtain FISA warrants, and if the dossier is “discredited” — as it is often described — then those warrants should not have been granted and, therefore, the investigation into links between agents of Trump’s campaign and Russian actors should never have begun.
Why skepticism is in order: In testimony offered before the Senate last year, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson indicated that, in a conversation between Steele and an unnamed FBI agent in 2016, Steele was told that his allegations of links between the campaign and Russia had been corroborated by the FBI independently.
This appears to be a reference to what has been cited as the direct instigator of the Russia investigation: Campaign adviser George Papadopoulos’s admission to an Australian diplomat that he’d been told about the Russians having obtained emails related to the Clinton campaign. (After emails from the DNC were released by WikiLeaks in June 2016, the Australians tipped off the FBI.) There have also been suggestions that the FBI investigation was triggered by campaign adviser Carter Page’s trip to Russia that July.
We don’t know exactly what led to the FBI warrants being issued at this point, though people familiar with the FISA warrant process told NBC News that even had Steele’s information been included in the request for a warrant, that would not be disqualifying since he’d worked with the bureau before. In testimony before a House committee last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have dismissed the importance of the Steele dossier, too.
UPDATE: There was also the bogus referral from Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham of Christopher Steele to the Justice Department for investigation of potential violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 for false statements investigators have reason to believe Steele made about the distribution of claims contained in the dossier. Senators Grassley, Graham Refer Christopher Steele for Criminal Investigation. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) signaled in a floor speech Wednesday that Senate Republicans have a Russia probe conspiracy memo of their own they’d like to release. Grassley Signals Push To Release His Own Russia Probe Conspiracy Memo. The memo Grassley is referring to is one he assembled with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and sent to the Justice Department, along with a cover letter claiming that the memo contained information “related to certain communications between Christopher Steele and multiple U.S. news outlets ….also provided to the FBI.”
The Devin Nunes Memo
What it is: Over the past week, the hashtag #releasethememo has been prominent on social media. It’s a call to release a four-page memo drafted by staffers for Nunes allegedly documenting abuse of the surveillance process under President Barack Obama and attempting to discredit Fusion GPS.
What it supposedly means: The memo, which alludes to classified information and has therefore been viewed only by members of Congress (despite Alex Jones’s enthusiasm on Tuesday), has been described in stark terms by Republicans.
“The sickening reality has set in. I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wrote on Twitter. “I have long said it is worse than Watergate.” Fox News’s Sean Hannity, apparently taking the severity of the memo on faith, called for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to “close the door” of his investigation given the documented abuses.
Why skepticism is in order: A few reasons.
First of all, the FBI hasn’t seen the memo, which was written by staffers for Republican members of the House. FBI: Devin Nunes Won’t Show Us Memo Alleging Surveillance Abuses. As such, the bureau has had no opportunity to respond to the allegations contained in it, even confidentially to members of Congress. In other words, the memo has propagated and been hailed publicly as damning — without any official rebuttal from the Justice Department.
Which isn’t to say there’s been no rebuttal. Democrats have seen the memo and describe it in less apocalyptic terms.
“Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). He called it “a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals.”
UPDATE: There have been several new developments. Rep. Nunes has also denied access to his memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senate Intelligence Committee not given access to Nunes FISA memo. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have now prepared their own memo that lays out the actual facts and shows how the GOP majority memo distorts the work of the FBI and the Department of Justice. House Democrats write memo to counter GOP’s take on Russia probe, attacks on FBI. In a letter sent Wednesday to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” for the committee to release the memo without first giving the Justice Department and the FBI “the opportunity to review the [GOP] memorandum” and tell panel members “of the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that could come from public release.” Read the DOJ letter to Nunes (.pdf).
UPDATE: Defiant Republicans ready to send secret Russia memo to Trump: Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are on the verge of defying the Department of Justice and voting to release a classified memo they say will reveal misconduct by senior FBI officials involved in investigating President Donald Trump’s campaign. House Republicans are unfazed by a top Justice Department official’s warning that doing so without first consulting the department would be “extraordinarily reckless,” and underscores the GOP’s determination to shift attention from Russian election influence onto alleged anti-Trump bias among federal Russia investigators.
The text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page
What it is: A FBI agent named Peter Strzok had a romantic affair with a FBI lawyer named Lisa Page. Over the course of the 2016 election and into 2017 — a period during which Strzok worked on the investigation into Clinton’s email server and apparently into Strzok’s tenure as a member of Mueller’s team — Strzok and Page exchanged text messages on FBI cellphones discussing, among other things, their views of what was happening in politics.
This week, it was revealed that messages between Strzok and Page from mid-December 2016 until May 17, 2017 — the day that Mueller was appointed special counsel — were not retained by the FBI. In total, 50,000 messages were captured.
What it supposedly means: Among those messages were one from Strzok disparaging Trump as a “douche” and one from Page lamenting that “[t]his man cannot be president.” Comments like these suggested to some that Strzok was hopelessly compromised in the work he’d done. (It was the discovery of these messages that led Mueller to remove Strzok from his team.)
More broadly, the messages included several cryptic comments. One compared the investigation into Russian meddling to “an insurance policy.” Another, newly released, apparently mentioned a “secret society” — though it’s not clear what the context was. (On Fox News on Tuesday evening, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Bret Baier that there was an “informant” who told the Senate about secret, off-site meetings. He offered no further details.)
UPDATE: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) on Wednesday walked back his comments claiming that there is a “secret society” among the Department of Justice and the FBI to undermine the Trump administration. Ron Johnson Walks Back FBI ‘Secret Society’ Claim.
That there is a cache of missing messages, of course, has raised its own questions. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, on his radio show, noted that the timing of the gap meant that messages during the period in which former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired (and the interview in which he lied to the FBI was conducted) wasn’t covered, nor was the time period before the firing of Comey.
Those missing messages prompted another Fox personality, Lou Dobbs, to wonder why U.S. Marshals hadn’t yet raided the Justice Department. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered that it “looks like there could have been some really inappropriate and possibly illegal behavior” in regards to the missing messages.
Why skepticism is in order: It’s worth reiterating that Mueller kicked Strzok off his team in July after discovering the messages, meaning that his involvement in the special counsel’s investigation was limited, even assuming that he was unable to conduct himself professionally after holding negative opinions of Trump. It’s also worth noting that Page and Strzok mocked other political actors, too, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.
Those cryptic comments about insurance and secret societies are open to interpretation, but neither is a smoking gun. (The Post’s Aaron Blake walked through the former.) Strzok’s position on Mueller’s team itself could use some additional context: In one text message, he writes that his “gut sense and concern is there’s no big there there” on the Russia investigation. [You would think Trump apologists would focus on this instead. FBI Agent Was Hesitant to Join Special Counsel’s Russia Probe.]
As for the missing text messages, we have no idea what’s actually missing. (The FBI blames the configuration of the phones it issued to its employees.) But this has been a common tactic of Trump himself, to suggest that the absence of evidence was itself evidence of malfeasance. Consider his repeated excoriation of Hillary Clinton for having deleted more than 30,000 email messages that she said were personal in nature. Those missing emails were implied to have been particularly damning and, since they don’t exist, this was an impossible-to-counter assertion.
Why the text messages are missing is unknown and important to determine. There’s no sign that anything illegal happened, though it’s clear why Sanders would like to hint that there is.
That they’re missing doesn’t itself mean that what they said was particularly damning or important. Certainly not so much so that the U.S. Marshals should have to raid the offices of the federal department to which they belong.
UPDATE: Donald Trump calls missing FBI texts ‘one of the biggest stories in a long time’. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from any investigation related to the 2016 election, pledged Monday that the Justice Department would look into the missing text messages. Sessions says ‘we will leave no stone unturned’ to find missing FBI text messages.
Fox News just published a story that directly cuts against a conspiracy theory being pushed by the network’s television hosts, congressional Republicans, and the president himself. Conservative conspiracy theory about FBI texts is bullshit, according to … Fox News: On Wednesday afternoon, Fox published an article on its website by reporter Jake Gibson, saying this theory was flatly wrong. Gibson writes, citing “federal law enforcement officials,” that the messages were deleted by a technical error, not malice — one that had affected not just Strzok and Page’s phones, but “thousands” of Bureau-issued devices between the dates of December 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017.
UPDATE: The “missig emails” conspiracy just fell apart. Missing FBI texts have been recovered, inspector general says:
The Justice Department inspector general says he has recovered missing text messages from two senior FBI officials who investigated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and exchanged notes critical of the president.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his office “succeeded in using forensic tools” to recover messages between senior FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page during a key five-month period ending the day special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed to investigate possible coordination between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign. The missing messages have sparked a political firestorm in recent days, with GOP leaders and the president questioning how the FBI failed to retain them.
Horowitz’s letter did not indicate how many messages were recovered, and it said his effort to locate more was “ongoing.” He said he would provide copies to the Justice Department and would not object if leaders there determined it was appropriate to turn them over to Congress.
The letter was sent to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Tea-Publcans, no doubt, will continue their hysteria over political bias at the FBI. Sen. Grassley wrote in a letter that the messages “raise serious concerns about the impartiality of senior leadership running both the Clinton and Trump investigations.”
The FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe
What it is: FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was targeted by Trump on the campaign trail as Trump sought to undermine the FBI’s initial exoneration of Clinton’s use of an email server.
What it supposedly means: Trump’s attacks focused on McCabe’s wife, who ran as a Democrat for the state Senate in Virginia. In that losing campaign, she received campaign contributions from a political action committee controlled by former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a close Clinton ally.
McCabe is the highest-ranking member of the FBI to have been isolated as having been biased against Trump. That bias is theoretically demonstrated by the above link to Clinton and by having been apparently mentioned in the “insurance policy” Strzok text. (“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” it read. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.” “Andy” here is apparently McCabe.)
The White House interview which ultimately ensnared Flynn? Set up by a call from McCabe’s office.
Why skepticism is in order: McCabe’s wife’s campaign ended in 2015, before McCabe became deputy director and was put in charge of the investigation into Clinton’s email server in February of the following year. The FBI cleared McCabe of conflict of interest on the issue. And as for that Flynn interview, it was Flynn who chose to lie to the agents about his contacts with Russian officials, ultimately leading to his admission of guilt to Mueller’s team.
Given McCabe’s stature, he’s been a frequent target of Trump and Trump’s defenders. Axios reported this week that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray (Comey’s replacement) threatened to resign if McCabe was fired.
The Post reported Tuesday that Trump also pressured McCabe during a meeting in the Oval Office shortly after Comey was fired. Among other things, Trump asked McCabe whom he voted for in the 2016 election.
Finally, there is the issue of Russian bots promoting the Republican #ReleaseTheMemo campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Congressional Democrats call on Facebook, Twitter to urgently investigate and combat Russian bots and trolls:
Top congressional Democrats on Tuesday called on Facebook and Twitter to urgently examine the role of Russian bots and trolls in the growing online campaign to release a classified memo about allegations that the FBI mishandled a classified surveillance request as it probed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Hashtags such as “#ReleaseTheMemo” have been trending on Twitter in recent days, and accounts affiliated with Russian influence efforts have been supporting this effort, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a U.S.-based group that examines efforts by Russia and other nations to interfere in democratic institutions. The hashtag has also been shared by Donald Trump Jr. and Rep. Steve King.
The letter to Facebook and Twitter calls for rapid study of these allegations and for the companies to shut down accounts that are involved. The authors are Rep. Adam B. Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats; Schiff is ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Feinstein is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process,” wrote Schiff and Feinstein. “This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms. This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow’s concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions.”
A report back to Congress from Facebook and Twitter is due on Friday.