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Anatomy of a Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory

Why right-wing media outlets are claiming the FBI colluded with CNN to damage the president

Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty

In his recent memoir, A Higher Loyalty, former FBI Director James Comey wrote about his decision to brief President-elect Donald Trump in January 2017 about the existence of the Steele dossier, which contained salacious allegations against him. Comey offered a reasonable explanation for why he briefed the president about the dossier’s contents: It would prevent Trump from being blindsided by the document if it became public and insulate him from the threat of foreign blackmail.

“I could see no way out of it,” Comey wrote. “The FBI was aware of the material. Two United States senators separately contacted me to alert me to its existence and the fact that many in Washington either had it or knew of it. CNN had informed the FBI press office that they were going to run with it as soon as the next day. Whether it was true or not, an important feature of disarming any effort to coerce a public official is to tell the official what the enemy might be doing or saying. The FBI calls that a ‘defensive briefing.’”

Conservative media outlets, aided by a Republican senator, are now revisiting this episode in their ongoing efforts to discredit the Russia investigation. In their new version of events, the FBI briefed Trump in January 2017 not to protect him from foreign blackmail, but to give CNN a reason to publicly reveal the dossier’s contents and embarrass the president. (CNN reported on the briefing four days later, which quickly led BuzzFeed to publish it online in full.)

There’s a certain rhythm to these conservative attacks on federal law enforcement. They often percolate down from conservative members of Congress to second or third-tier conservative publications, whose bad-faith interpretations of new information serve to depict Trump and his associates as the victims of a “witch hunt” by a biased FBI and Justice Department.

The Trump-Comey briefing conspiracy theory isn’t as dramatic as the Nunes memo earlier this year or as potentially damaging as the ongoing battle over a purported FBI informant within the Trump campaign. But it provides a useful case study for how these stories spread throughout the conservative media ecosystem and shape Americans’—even Trump’s—perceptions of the Russia investigation.

This particular saga began with a letter. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson sent it to FBI Director Christopher Wray on Monday to request documents related to the Steele dossier and the media’s awareness of it last January. Johnson, a Republican, is the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. He’s also one of the Senate’s top critics of the Russia investigation and last October called for the resignation of special counsel Robert Mueller.

“According to documents reviewed by the Committee, the FBI appeared to have had awareness in January 2017 that media outlets had information about the Steele Dossier,” Johnson wrote. “It appears that then-FBI Director James Comey briefed then-President-elect Trump about this information, at the request of then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. According to the FBI, CNN then published its article using the President-elect briefing as the ‘trigger.’”

Most of those events are already well established, except for that last sentence about CNN and a “trigger” to publish about the Comey-Trump briefing. To explain that part, Johnson’s letter includes a brief timeline of events surrounding the January 7 briefing at Trump Tower. (I’ve omitted his footnotes that reference quoted documents.)

January 6, 2017, 9:44 a.m. FBI Chief of Staff Jim Rybicki sent an email to unspecified recipients stating, “the director is coming into HQ briefly now for an update from the sensitive matter team.”

January 6, 2017, afternoon. Director Comey met with President-elect Trump.

January 7, 2017. Director Comey memorialized his discussion with President-elect Trump via an email to senior FBI leadership. Director Comey wrote, “I said there was something that Clapper wanted me to speak to PE [President Elect] about alone or in a very small group.” Director Comey wrote, “I then extended the session exactly as I had planned,” and “I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook.”

January 8, 2017, 12:08 p.m. Then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe sent an email to senior FBI leadership with the subject line “Flood is coming.” Mr. McCabe wrote, “CNN is close to going forward with the sensitive story….The trigger for them [CNN] is they know the material was discussed in the brief and presented in an attachment.”

January 8, 2017, 12:55 p.m. Mr. McCabe emailed then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and then-Principal Deputy Attorney General Matthew Axelrod with the subject line “News.” Mr. McCabe wrote, “Just an FYI, and as expected, it seems CNN is close to running a story about the sensitive reporting.”

January 10, 2017. CNN published a story entitled “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.” The article explained that the President-elect received the briefing on the contents of the Steele Dossier.

January 10, 2017, 6:20 p.m. BuzzFeed News published the contents of the Steele Dossier.

This partial timeline largely tracks with what’s already known about those events. It’s been widely known that the Steele dossier circulated throughout Washington in the election’s final months. Multiple media outlets received copies but were understandably hesitant to publish its contents, which included unproven allegations about Trump and his inner circle. Its existence wasn’t public knowledge until Mother Jones’ David Corn reported on it one week before the election. Even then, Corn didn’t describe its claims.

Johnson’s timeline doesn’t demonstrate anything untoward on its own, although its partial quotations leave out valuable context. His excerpts from Comey’s contemporaneous memo include just enough content for a reader to suspect that the former FBI director may have approached Trump with a surreptitious motive. But in a partially redacted copy of the memo that became public last month, Comey actually described his skepticism towards the material.

“I said I wasn’t saying this was true, only that I wanted him to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands,” the former FBI director wrote. “I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them the excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold. [Trump] said he couldn’t believe they had gone with it. I said it was inflammatory stuff that they would get killed for reporting straight up from the source reports.”

The key quote in Johnson’s letter is former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s reference to a “trigger” for CNN to publish their article on the dossier. A straightforward reading of McCabe’s partial email indicates only that he was relaying his understanding of CNN’s plan. Indeed, Johnson’s letter is careful not to explicitly put forward any deeper meaning to McCabe’s emails. Only through astounding leaps of bad faith could someone draw any nefarious inferences from them.

That’s where conservative media outlets come in. On Monday night, The Federalist published a story titled “BREAKING: E-mails Show FBI Brass Discussed Dossier Briefing Details With CNN,” which appears to be the first report on Johnson’s letter to Wray. Sean Davis, the publication’s co-founder, took the letter’s insinuations one step further than the Wisconsin senator by suggesting that McCabe himself may have been in communication with CNN reporters before the network published its January 10 story.

As Davis readily notes, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe last month after a DOJ inspector general’s report found that he misled the bureau about his communications with a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2016. There’s no evidence that McCabe leaked anything to CNN in this case, but the article’s insinuation isn’t subtle about the possibility. “It is not clear how McCabe came to be so familiar with CNN’s understanding of the dossier, its briefing, or how close CNN was to reporting on the matter,” Davis wrote.

The simplest and most likely answer is that McCabe learned it from the FBI’s press office, which fielded inquiries from the network about the meeting in the days before the article’s publication. CNN’s January 10 article includes the following note: “Spokespeople for the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.” And as I noted earlier, Comey also wrote in his recent memoir that the network had reached out to the bureau about the article through its press office.

Indeed, it would’ve been more troubling if CNN hadn’t contacted the FBI before publication. Generally speaking, reporters often send a list of questions to a story’s subjects before publishing a major article about them. That gives those subjects a chance to comment and raise any concerns before publication. If CNN followed similar practices last January, those questions would’ve made FBI officials familiar with the network’s understanding of the dossier.

It is not clear whether Davis was unaware of this common journalistic practice or simply forgot to note it for his readers. Other conservatives like Ari Fleischer, who served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, pointed out on Tuesday morning that the FBI’s press office was the likeliest explanation.

But by that point, The Federalist story had already been widely distributed in conservative Twitter circles. Among its readers were Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, who shared it among his followers with the caption, “This is a big deal!”

By Tuesday afternoon, other conservative news outlets had picked up on Johnson’s letter and Davis’s account of it. This time, they took it another step further to suggest that the January 6 meeting may have been a set-up all along.

“The FBI was aware CNN was looking for a reason to publish information about the so-called ‘Steele Dossier’ just before then-Director James Comey briefed President-elect Trump in early 2017,” wrote The Washington Times’s Stephen Dinan. “Comey said prior to the briefing that CNN was angling for a ‘news hook,’” Townhall’s Matt Vespa surmised. “Well, what better way to unleash the Russian collusion hysteria than the top domestic law enforcement and intelligence chief briefing the incoming president about a document that’s one of the centerpieces of this shoddy theory.”

This conservative line of attack on the FBI requires certain preconceived notions to take root in an audience. A reader who thinks, for example, that Comey and other federal law enforcement officials are generally decent and honorable people may find it hard to believe that they briefed a president-elect about potential blackmail so that a news outlet could report on that blackmail. On the other hand, a reader who mostly hears that lawless deep-state operatives are hellbent on bringing down the Trump administration may find it more plausible.

There’s already a stark disparity in how conservative media outlets cover the Russia investigation compared to mainstream and liberal news organizations. Fox News commentators and analysts, for example, often depict Mueller’s investigation in negative terms. A Vox analysis of the network’s coverage when he unsealed indictments against Russian social-media meddlers in February found that Fox largely described the news as a vindication for Trump.

Perceptions of the investigation also tend to correlate with a reader’s media diet. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll released on Monday found that 74 percent of Americans who follow the Russia investigation at least partially through Fox News disapproved of Mueller’s job performance. Conversely, 60 percent of CNN viewers and 70 percent of MSNBC viewers approved of his work.

The most dramatic effect can be felt in a single viewer: Trump himself. The president is an avid consumer of television in general and Fox News in particular. He habitually live-tweets the network’s morning show Fox & Friends and encourages his supporters to watch evening programs helmed by Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, who both act as de facto presidential advisers. These viewing habits form a strange feedback loop between the president and a television network that’s all too cognizant of its influence over national policy.

Will this latest conspiracy theory about the Russia investigation bubble up to Fox News, and from there to Trump? Such stories from conservative publications often do: Trump’s outbursts on a potential FBI source within his campaign were partially driven by a National Review article he may have seen on Fox & Friends. That underscores how conservative outlets’ coverage of the Russia investigation can directly influence the president. Stories like The Federalist’s account of the Trump-Comey briefing don’t just mislead readers—they may push us closer to a constitutional crisis.