In the face of widening evidence of Trump campaign culpability in the Russia investigation, Republicans have churned through a frequently mutating series of conspiracy theories to defend him. The latest, and possibly final, such theory, involves an informant used by the FBI to report on the campaign’s connections to Russia, whom Trump has promoted to “spy,” or possibly multiple spies. “A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign. If they had spies in my campaign, that would be a disgrace to this country,” Trump told reporters yesterday. “That would be one of the biggest insults that anyone has ever seen.” Trump has mixed his insinuations with dark threats of revenge. “Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State,” he tweeted this morning, “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!”
Trump’s ability to comprehend objective reality is characteristically cracked. But his confidence that the array of forces are shifting to his benefit, and that he may turn the tables on his enemies, has a real basis in reality. He is bringing his party, and the powers it commands, around to his warped manner of thinking.
The spy theory holds that the FBI, working on orders from the Obama administration, implanted a spy into the Trump campaign in order to help Hillary Clinton’s campaign:
This does not explain why the FBI failed to announce either the results of its spying campaign, or even the existence of the investigation, in time to help Clinton win, rather than allowing the probe to remain secret until well after the election. It likewise fails to elaborate on what exactly was done to poor Bernie Sanders.
Trump’s allies have seized on the procedural offense of the “spy.” The FBI was probing the Trump campaign because the campaign had brought on multiple figures who had suspicious financial or political connections to Russian intelligence — Carter Page (who had been on the FBI’s radar as a potential Russian agent for years), Paul Manafort (who had run a campaign on behalf of Russian interests in Ukraine), and Michael Flynn, among others. The defense has ignored all this evidence of guilt, and instead focused on the question of why Trump was being investigated at all.
“We can’t recall a similar case, even in the J. Edgar Hoover days, when the FBI decided it needed to snoop on a presidential campaign,” complains The Wall Street Journal editorial page. That this disparity could be explained by the fact that there haven’t been any recent presidential campaigns swarming with criminality is not a possibility the Journal contemplates.
Instead, Trump’s defenders implicitly assume that the level of covert Russian influence in Trump’s campaign was completely typical, and that the only difference is that Trump was somehow subjected to scrutiny. “For those ok w the FBI spying on the Trump campaign,” reasons Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, “how ok would you have been if in 2008 the FBI decided, because of Bill Ayers and terrorism, they needed to spy on the Obama campaign?” Let’s see. If Bill Ayers was a member of the 2008 Obama campaign, which he was not, and if his Weatherman terrorist cell was still operating, which it also was not, and if there was reason to believe the Weathermen were using Ayers to gain some kind of secret influence over Obama, then, yes, it would have been okay for the FBI to covertly probe his role. (Especially if it took care to keep the probe secret through the election, as the FBI did with its investigation of Trump.)
But since none of the hypothetical parallels Fleischer suggests are actually valid, then all he is doing is positing the existence of one set of right-wing fever dreams in order to justify another. His comparison between Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 actually shows how Republican paranoia inverted reality. Obama, whom the right suspected of harboring dark, secretive un-American influence, was completely loyal, while Trump (for all his blustering nationalism) allowed all sorts of secret hostile foreign influences to take hold. The irrational fear they projected onto Obama has actually come to life, and their response is to demonize the FBI as a nefarious secret police. Republicans today sound, ironically, a lot like Bill Ayers.
And this, amazingly enough, is the moderate version of the pro-Trump conspiracy. The case revolves around the premise that the FBI had no business snooping on Trump. It follows that any evidence Robert Mueller produces is the fruit of an illegitimate investigation. It is a legal principle much like the exclusionary rule, which requires prosecutors to disregard any evidence the police obtained improperly.
Trump may be forming an even more radical theory. Gabriel Sherman reports that Trump’s team “is attempting to build the case that anti-Trump forces in the F.B.I. entrapped his advisers using informants to plant evidence about Russian collusion.” Let this roll around in your mind for a moment. Trump is not merely accusing the FBI of planting a spy, but of planting evidence.
“The president himself is convinced that the secret F.B.I. informant who reportedly met with several Trump campaign advisers in 2016 was not merely an informant, but an Obama political operative,” Sherman reports. “One administration official told me the theory has become so widely accepted that people in the West Wing are paranoid that the F.B.I. has multiple informants working to take down Trump.”
Planting evidence? Multiple spies? Obama political operatives? You might think this is all so unhinged Trump could not possibly believe it, but then, you would have to explain Trump’s longtime infatuation with the conspiracy theories he imbibes in his binge-watching of Fox News, where hours of air time can pass by without the appearance of anybody who is hinged. And you might also think Trump could not get his party to go along with this theory, to dismiss all the evidence of culpability as having been fabricated by a pro-Obama cabal in the FBI. But then you would be ignoring how far down the Trump rabbit hole the Republican Party has gone so far.