Since last week’s release of the Mueller report, President Trump and his loyal media organs have embarked on a bold campaign to gaslight its conclusions. “TRUMP HAS BEEN TOTALLY VINDICATED” the president tweeted. “TRUMP CLEAN” the New York Post blared.
Notwithstanding these hopeful declarations, the cloud of suspicion lingers. As I explained on Thursday, the report describes a dangerous and reckless presidency, and should lead to impeachment proceedings.
While serious constitutional questions about the president’s conduct remain unresolved, the report goes a long way toward debunking several persistent conspiracy theories. I regret that new-and-improved conspiracy theories will undoubtedly replace the ones we leave behind, but let’s take an inventory of the people who promoted or enabled these paranoid ideas, and how they captured willing minds on both sides.
When did the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump presidential campaign really begin? Was there a pro-Clinton “deep state” effort to entrap Trump campaign “coffee boy” George Papadopoulos?
The New York Times reported in May 2018 that the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia links began when “top Australian officials broke with diplomatic protocol and allowed the ambassador, Alexander Downer, to sit for an FBI interview to describe his meeting with the campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos.” This news was unsettling for those looking to cast the future president as a victim of an FBI-directed smear campaign.
Lee Smith of The Federalist doggedly pursued an alternative, conspiratorial storyline, suggesting that the very name of the investigation — Crossfire Hurricane — betrayed its true origin.
The answer may be found in the 1986 Penny Marshall film named after the song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In the Cold War-era comedy, a quirky bank officer played by Whoopi Goldberg comes to the aid of Jonathan Pryce, who plays a British spy being chased by the KGB …
The code name “Crossfire Hurricane” is further evidence that the FBI’s cover story is absurd. A reference to a movie about a British spy evading Russian spies behind enemy lines suggests the Steele dossier was always the core of the bureau’s investigation into the Trump campaign.
The Mueller report pours cold water on that theory, stating that the FBI investigation began “in late July 2016, soon after WikiLeaks’s first release of stolen documents [when] a foreign government contacted the FBI about a May 2016 encounter with Trump Campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos.”
You want to suggest that Bob Mueller is now part of the cover-up? Good luck with that.
And the supposed kompromat tape of the future president and prostitutes in a Moscow hotel suite? The special counsel is not definitive, but does cite a Russian businessman who “said he was told the tapes were fake.” It seems likely this rumor began as a shakedown.
It’s hard to overstate the dishonesty and cynicism behind the conspiracy theory that the leak of Democratic National Committee emails was an inside job. It would be one thing if responsible journalists questioned the evidence supporting the U.S. government’s assessment that hackers associated with Russian intelligence broke into DNC servers and passed the materials to WikiLeaks—but that’s not what happened here.
The Mueller report explains how WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange promoted the theory that his source wasn’t a Russian intelligence-linked hacking group but rather Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who was murdered in July 2016, during what Washington, D.C., police suspect was an attempted robbery. The special counsel describes a concerted effort by Assange to deflect suspicion away from Russia and frame Rich as the leaker.
Beginning in the summer of 2016, Assange and WikiLeaks made a number of statements about Seth Rich, a former DNC staff member who was killed in July 2016. The statements about Rich implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.
Assange wasn’t merely raising the remote possibility that Rich could have sought to conceal his role by laundering the materials through Russian-connected individuals. The WikiLeaks founder falsely claimed to possess evidence vindicating Russians from any involvement in the leak.
After the U.S. intelligence community publicly announced its assessment that Russia was behind the hacking operation, Assange continued to deny that the Clinton materials released by WikiLeaks had come from Russian hacking. According to media reports, Assange told a U.S. congressman that the DNC hack was an “inside job,” and purported to have “physical proof that Russians did not give materials to Assange.
The Seth Rich-as-DNC-leaker theory was also promoted by far-right and far-left media figures, eager to serve their audiences an alternate narrative that would not warrant a confrontation with Russia for its 2016 election meddling.
Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs trafficked the theory to their large cable audiences, amplifying a now-retracted story by the network’s Malia Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s report quoted a private investigator named Rod Wheeler, who alleged that not only was Rich in communication with WikiLeaks, but that “someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.”
(Wheeler later sued Fox News, claiming the network “manufactur[ed] two false quotations attributed to him.”)
Sean Hannity’s journey with WikiLeaks—from archenemy to vocal supporter—mirrors that of the president and much of the pro-Trump right. When the website published a cache of classified documents it received from Army private Chelsea Manning in 2010, Hannity accused Assange of “waging war against the U.S.” and wondered “why [the Obama administration] didn’t arrest him.”
When British police finally arrested Assange earlier this month, Hannity took up his defense, vouching for his credibility as a journalist and, ironically, contrasting him with those who push conspiracy theories.
Whether you like their work or don’t, [WikiLeaks has] a much better track record than the fake news media mob here in America that has been doing nothing but lying and peddling you conspiracy theories for two-and-a-half years.
Hannity went so far as to offer Assange a guest-hosting spot on his nationally syndicated radio show. “If you would like to fill in for me one day I am on over 550 stations and 14 plus million listeners,” wrote Hannity in a now-deleted tweet.
We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments.
National Review contributor Dinesh D’Souza, who believes right-wing conspiracy theories you’ve probably never heard of — “What’s this about guys with #BlackLivesMatter signs and KKK signs showing up to #Charlottesville on the same bus?” “Was the #LasVegasShooter an anti-Trump guy? This would explain why the mainstream media is so cagey about his background.” — predictably lapped up the Seth Rich theory.
The hunger for an alternate theory to explain the leak of DNC emails was not limited to those on the MAGA right. Elements of the “anti-imperialist” left, whose reflexive distrust of American power leads it to excuse the behavior of tyrants and thugs, also latched on to the Seth Rich conspiracy.
On a tape recording made by Ed Butowsky—a pro-Trump activist and Fox News guest who helped with the network’s now-retracted report—Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh provided a fanciful, reckless, and baseless account of how Seth Rich leaked the documents to WikiLeaks.
He had submitted a series of documents, of e-mails. Some juicy e-mails from the DNC… All I know is that he [Seth] offered a sample, an extensive sample, you know I’m sure dozens of e-mail and said “I want money.” Then later Wikileaks did get the password… I don’t know how he dealt with the Wikileaks and the mechanism but he also, the word was passed according to the FBI report, “I’ve also shared this box with a couple of friends so if anything happens to me it’s not going to solve your problem.”
Hersh later told NPR he was passing along unfounded information in an apparent attempt to discover what Butowsky knew, but he seems to have kickstarted the conspiracy itself. According to NPR, the two spoke “five days after Trump’s inauguration.”
Butowsky nonetheless forwards the tape of his talk with Hersh to the Riches. They say they accept his offer to pay for a private eye, which Butowsky says surprises him. And that sets off a flurry of activity.
Email exchanges shared with NPR show that Butowsky canvasses friends and associates, including people with ties to Fox News, for suggestions. He ultimately zeroes in Rod Wheeler — a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective who has been a paid Fox News contributor since 2005. He introduces Wheeler to Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, but, according to the lawsuit, cautions Wheeler not to mention her involvement to the Riches.
Did the Seth Rich conspiracy theory—embraced by so many on the pro-Trump right—achieve national attention because of a progressive hero’s lie? Hersh’s behavior does his reputation, which already suffers from his bizarre promotion of pro-Assad false-flag theories, no favors.
Another leftist who actively promoted the Seth Rich conspiracy theory was Bernie Sanders dead-ender H.A. Goodman. Goodman even participated in a debate on Russian state media to bolster the attempt to frame Rich for doing what Russian agents actually did.
The much-heralded “reckoning” for Russiagate conspiracy theorists doesn’t seem to apply to Seth Rich truthers.
Julian Assange’s role in propagating an alternate narrative he knew to be false puts WikiLeaks defenders in an awkward position. Last year, Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept called the DNC’s lawsuit against WikiLeaks “a serious threat to press freedom,” comparing its release of stolen documents to the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and Washington Post.
Nor does it matter at all whether one views WikiLeaks as “real journalists” — whatever that might mean. The First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press is not just for media corporations; it is not applicable only to a select group of people called “journalists,” but rather operates to protect an activity when engaged in by anyone. It protects everyone who wishes to publish information that informs the public on matters of public interest. (emphasis added)
Greenwald’s argument that WikiLeaks deserves First Amendment protection because it is “informing the public on matters of public interest” begs the question. How does fabricating a cover story to conceal the Russian government’s involvement in hacking DNC computers “inform the public”?
It’s one thing to protect the identity of a confidential source. Journalists do that all the time. It’s another to concoct a false story to protect a narrative on behalf of a government. That looks more like an information operation than it does journalism.
To be fair to Greenwald, he made this argument before we understood the scale of Assange’s deception. He also called the Seth Rich conspiracy theory “disgusting.” Still, it would be interesting to know if he thinks inventing a false flag to mislead the public is the type of thing journalists do.
A week after its May 16, 2017, report alleging that Seth Rich had communicated with WikiLeaks and that powerful forces were obstructing the investigation into his murder, Fox News retracted the article, explaining that it “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
Shortly thereafter, Fox was sued separately by the Rich family and by Rod Wheeler, the private eye hired by Ed Butowsky to “investigate” the murder. Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News, claimed at the time that “the retraction of [the Seth Rich] story is being investigated internally.” In August 2018, both lawsuits were dismissed by a federal judge. Fox News has yet to release any statement on its internal investigation.
In his complaint, Wheeler raised the specter of White House, even presidential, involvement in the creation of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. As reported by NPR,
On April 20, a month before the story ran, Butowsky and Wheeler — the investor and the investigator — met at the White House with then-press secretary Sean Spicer to brief him on what they were uncovering.
The first page of the lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story just before it went to air and was published.
Spicer reportedly told NPR he met with Butowsky “as a favor” and was not aware of any involvement by President Trump. For his part, Butowsky told NPR “he was kidding about Trump’s involvement.”
The Seth Rich murder conspiracy theory is part of the broader “Clinton body count” theory promoted by right-wing figures like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Trump friend Christopher Ruddy. Consider for a moment the implications of accepting the Seth Rich theory as truth: you must also accept the existence of a vast conspiracy involving Democratic Party leaders, intelligence agencies, and the police, all with the tacit cooperation of mainstream journalists who know just enough to not ask too many questions.
To organize a successful political murder conspiracy with such ruthless and depraved efficiency requires what Richard Hofstadter called an “amoral superman” in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.
Conspiracy theories emerge when facts undermine a narrative that people are unwilling to give up. Some of the more outlandish theories about Trump’s behavior — that he was an actual Russian agent — probably served a psychic need to make sense of a reality-shattering election. A tinfoil hat can be a coping mechanism.
Political paranoia can also serve as a kind of moral salve by manufacturing cosmically evil enemies to excuse one’s own, relatively smaller transgressions. Conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” and “QAnon” — which posit the existence of a vast network of elites engaged in human trafficking and demonic rituals — reassure the consciences of those who voted for a president whose moral character is difficult to defend on the merits. It’s easier to sleep at night knowing that whatever wrongs were committed by your own side, the other team is busy pursuing a dark and sinister agenda.
In this way, pro-Trump conspiracism has something in common with anti-anti-Trumpism. Both share the same nihilism, a sensibility of fear and loathing that stands in for more principled justifications.
None of this amounts to a positive or durable case for Trump, but that doesn’t matter. It’s good enough for his supporters.
Correction, April 23: The article originally referred to Ed Butowsky as a Fox News contributor. He was a Fox News guest.