Trump’s “Witch Hunt” Conspiracy Theory

HorowitzThe Inspector General of the Justice Department has released his report on the origins of “Crossfire Hurricane,” the FBI investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election interference in 2016.

This episode has been at the heart of a number of right-wing conspiracy stories, which are frequently trotted out by Trump and his supporters to push back against everything from the Mueller investigation to the impeachment hearings into Trump’s using the presidency to get Ukraine to help his campaign.

The IG report does offer some criticism of how the FBI conducted its investigation. However, it also destroys the key pillars that Trump’s conspiracy story is built on.

Here are some of the key points that debunk the story Trump supporters are trying to spin:

1. There was a solid basis for the FBI opening the investigation.

2. The decision to open the investigation, and the decisions about how to gather information in the investigation, were not motivated by political concerns (in particular, there is no reason to believe that anything the FBI did was based on a desire to prevent or undermine Trump’s presidency).

3. While the use of “Steele Dossier” was problematic, and indicates a need to fix FBI protocols and the FISA courts, it does not show that there were no good reasons for surveilling Page (there were) or even that a FISA warrant wouldn’t (properly) have been issued even if the Steele dossier never existed.

4. The FBI did not “wiretap Trump’s phone” or “plant spies in the Trump campaign.” In short, there was no spying on the Trump campaign.

To spell all this out in more detail, let’s begin by looking at the conspiracy story that has been debunked.

The conspiracy story really got rolling in March of 2017, when Trump shot off several tweets accusing Obama of wiretapping his phones, such as, “How low has Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”


This message was not prompted by any sort of notification from within the U.S. government, but instead resulted merely from Trump’s reading a story from Breitbart, a right-wing news source known for spreading conspiracy theories.

This itself would be major scandal in any normal period of American politics. Here we have the President of the United States publicly accusing the previous president of an egregious crime – based on nothing more than a thinly sourced story from an unreliable news page, with no effort whatsoever to determine whether the story was at all credible.

Of course, this surprises no one at this point. Trump spent years questioning whether Obama was even a US citizen; it’s obvious that he is completely dismissive of evidence and reason. Still, since 63 million people either were not smart enough to realize this, or simply didn’t care, we now have a president who tosses out crazy accusations based on nothing more substantial than a hunch.

The office of the president has well and truly been degraded.

Trump’s tweets triggered a cascade of outrage that recent years have made all too familiar: right-wing Trump supporters accepted his assertions without question and saw them as conclusive evidence of a liberal deep-state plot (a “coup” they said) to try to take out Trump. On the other side, liberals and the fact-based media were saying that Trump’s claims were obviously absurd and supported by no evidence whatsoever.

Trump’s claims of “wiretapping” were walked back, but the general notion that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign for illicit political purposes persisted (and still persists).


Similarly, the absurd claim that Obama was directly involved got mostly left behind, but the broader claim persisted that anti-Trump political motivations drove the original FBI investigation, and then also the subsequent Mueller investigation:


So we end up with the four pillars of the Trump witch-hunt conspiracy theory:

1. The FBI investigation into the Trump campaign (and, in some versions of the story, into Russian interference as well) was based almost exclusively on the Steele dossier (which, on this telling, was a packet of known falsehoods financed by Clinton).

2. The investigations were a deliberate attempt by people inside the FBI (and others, perhaps even Obama) to prevent Trump from winning the 2016 election, and thereafter, to try to drive him from the presidency (“This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.”)

3. The FBI had no legitimate grounds for investigating anyone in the Trump campaign, so they used the allegations in the Steele dossier to deceive the FISA court to get a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign.

4. The FBI then spied on the Trump campaign, not for any legitimate law-enforcement or national-security purpose, but rather as an attempt at political sabotage.

The DoJ Inspector General has spent the last six months looking into these allegations, and has found that they’re all bogus.

Here are some key conclusions from the report after they’ve debunked points 1 and 2:

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations.”

“We concluded that AD Priestap’s exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with Department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision. While the information in the FBI’s possession at the time was limited, in light of the low threshold established by Department and FBI predication policy, we found that Crossfire Hurricane was opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication.”

“[We] determined that Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.”

On point 3, the use of the Steele dossier to obtain a FISA warrant to surveil Page, Horowitz does find reason to fault how the FBI handled things. He finds that the FBI overstated the reliability of Steele’s past testimony, and that when investigators found evidence that undermined the Steele allegations against Page, that evidence was not shared with those responsible for submitting renewals for warrants and so was not made available to the FISA court judge deciding whether to grant permission to continue the surveillance, and there was even a case of a lawyer changing an e-mail to hide the fact that Page had been a source for the CIA.

It’s not going shock liberals to hear that the FBI (and other law enforcement agencies) are sometimes not completely scrupulous when it comes to getting warrants, and liberals have been complaining since it came into existence that the FISA court often seem too willing to grant warrants on weak evidence.

So here is a topic that liberals and conservatives can agree on: the FISA court process needs to be fixed. (It would be nice if conservatives didn’t wait until things affected them directly before they were willing to agree that something is unjust, but I guess we should take what we can get.)

But the Inspector General’s report also makes clear that none of this indicates a politically motivated anti-Trump conspiracy. It was irresponsible, but it’s the sort of irresponsibility that one often sees in law enforcement. Horowitz argues that it’s all the more important to be responsible when one is investigating people involved in a political campaign (a point I’m happy to agree with) and he makes a number of suggestions of procedures the FBI should put in place to assure this.

But in all this he found no evidence that FBI team was trying to prevent Trump from getting elected, or that they were trying to “overthrow the United States government.” They were trying to find out whether Page had received anti-Clinton information (e.g., hacked emails) from Russia, which is exactly what they were supposed to do.

Here it’s important to ask *why* we should be worried about whatever problematic action we’re discussing. Is it because the action is wrong in itself? Or is it because we think it is evidence of more significant wrongdoing?

Consider the case where police respond to a bank robbery and spot Joe speeding away. They pull him over. Should they just write him a ticket? Or should they lock him up?

Speeding is illegal in and of itself, sure. But it’s not a big deal. In this case the offence takes on more significance, though, because it is (prima facie, defeasible) evidence that Joe was involved the bank robbery and was trying to get away.

Trump and his supporters have been claiming that Joe’s speeding (the misuse of the Steele dossier on the Page warrant application) shows that Joe took part in the robbery (the FBI investigation was an illegitimate attempt by the deep state to take down Trump).

But Horowitz has come in and has found no evidence whatsoever that Joe was at the bank. It looks like Joe was just speeding. So now that we have that information, we can talk about whether Joe should be fined, and whether we want to do more to combat speeding (i.e., we can try to make sure the FBI and the FISA courts protect our civil liberties), but it’s now unreasonable to blame Joe for robbing a bank (that is, it’s unreasonable to think the FBI and Mueller investigations were politically motivated witch hunts).

Let’s finally turn to the question of whether the FBI “spied on the Trump campaign.”

One could argue about what it means to “spy” on someone (for example, I have reason to think the FBI has a file on me; does that mean they’re “spying” on me?); but in this context I think the meaning is fairly clear.

The FBI was covertly gathering information from Page by recording his conversations without his knowledge. So let’s agree that the FBI was spying on Page (and Manafort, I believe).

That, of course, is the FBI’s job. They are supposed to investigate potential crimes and security threats. They had reason to think that someone on the Trump campaign was coordinating with Russia’s illegal attempts to undermine Clinton’s campaign and boost Trump’s. Page seemed like one of the most likely contenders. It was their job to find out whether he was.

It’s true that they made some improper moves in pursuing that goal, but that’s irrelevant to question of who was “spied” on. They were spying on a suspected criminal, because that’s what cops do.

Now, were they spying on Trump’s campaign? Well, if by that we simply mean “spying on someone who works on Trump’s campaign,” then sure.

But that’s obviously not what Trump and his supporters mean. They mean something scandalous. Something “worse than Watergate.” Something that amounts to an ““illegal and treasonous attack on our Country.”

Here’s what Trump said just yesterday:

“They spied on our campaign, okay? Never happened before in the history of our country . . . . The FBI also sent to multiple undercover human spies to surveillance and record people associated with our campaign. Look how they’ve hurt people. They’ve destroyed the lives of people that were great people, that are still great people. Their lives have been destroyed by scum. Okay, by scum.”

Let’s set aside the question whether we should be stoking sympathy for criminals who have been put in jail, and focus on the question of why he thinks we should be outraged that the FBI “spied on our campaign.”

Obviously it is because when we think of “spying on a campaign” we don’t think of the police just doing their job looking into a possible crime by an individual.

We think of people trying to dig up political dirt, or secret campaign information, that can be used against that campaign. We think of the “plumbers” breaking into Watergate. We think of someone gathering campaign information and delivering it to Hillary Clinton.

So this sort of spying would try to sweep up as much information as possible about what the campaign is up to. And it would especially be trying to get information about people who are most significant in the campaign. Ideally about the candidate himself.

But that’s exactly what the IG report debunked. Page was a bit player at best. If he had any use at all in an anti-Trump conspiracy, it would only be as a window to get at more valuable targets. But Horowitz found that the opposite was true:

“Additionally, we identified several individuals who had either a connection to candidate Trump or a role in the Trump campaign, and were also FBI CHSs, who the Crossfire Hurricane team could have tasked, but did not. We found no evidence that the FBI placed any CHSs or UCEs within the Trump campaign or tasked any CHSs or UCEs to report on the Trump campaign. We also did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to use CHSs to interact with Page, Papadopoulos, and the high-level Trump campaign official in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”

“We did not find any documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to conduct these operations. Additionally, we found no evidence that the FBI attempted to place any CHSs within the Trump campaign, recruit members of the Trump campaign as CHSs, or task CHSs to report on the Trump campaign.”

In other words, the FBI did not spy on the Trump campaign.

One can dishonestly twist words so that anytime one spies on any individual one is, ipso facto, spying on any group that the member belongs to. So the FBI was also spying on Page’s golf club, and his church, and his family. But that’s not what we mean.

Trump and his supporters aren’t outraged just because someone who happened to work for Trump was under FBI investigation. They’re outraged because they think that the FBI was after Trump himself. That the FBI was trying to undermine the campaign to get him elected.

Horowitz just told us that’s false.

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