How the phony conspiracy theory over wiretapping caught fire
Trump’s unfounded claim that President Obama wiretapped his telephone ricocheted throughout the country, shook Washington and stunned disbelieving U.S. allies.
When Michael Flynn, President Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, resigned last month, Mark Levin was outraged.
Not because Flynn had falsely denied speaking with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions before Trump took office. Rather, the conservative talk radio host was furious that U.S. surveillance had picked up Flynn’s venture into freelance diplomacy.
“How many phone calls of Donald Trump, if any, have been intercepted by the administration and recorded by the Obama administration?” Levin demanded on his program, which reaches millions nationwide. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real scandal.”
With that, what began as rumors and unverified accounts percolating through right-wing media coalesced into a wild conspiracy theory adopted by a president with an itchy Twitter finger, a penchant for intrigue and eagerness to embrace information — however sketchy — that reinforces, rather than tests, his beliefs.
Trump’s unfounded claim that President Obama had wiretapped his telephone ricocheted throughout the country, shook Washington and stunned disbelieving U.S. allies. The fallout continues to rattle the embryonic Trump White House.
The president’s own Justice Department, the head of the FBI and the bipartisan leaders of two congressional oversight committees have all said they’ve found no evidence to substantiate the outlandish assertion.
But the president and his chief spokesman, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, have refused to back down, aligning themselves with Levin and others operating in what amounts to a hall of mirrors, where the unproven claims of one media outlet are cited as evidence by another and facts are twisted, misdirected or ignored in the service of political propaganda.
“We’re living in a world in which people are making false assumptions that because something exists in print and is circulating, it has a legitimacy that it otherwise wouldn’t merit,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent decades studying the intersection of media and politics.
“Someplace along the line,” she said, “we failed to teach some people how to evaluate evidence and how to recognize legitimate versus illegitimate.”
It’s all the more startling when the president of the United States is the one trafficking in falsehoods.
Levin, who began his current show in 2003, is a 59-year-old constitutional lawyer who heads a conservative, nonprofit public-interest law firm in Washington. During the Reagan administration, he served as chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
He first broached his unfounded theory on his program on Feb. 15. He laid out the supposed details on March 2.
Obama and others who backed Clinton, Levin said without evidence, “used the instrumentalities of the federal government intelligence activities to surveil members of the Trump campaign and to put that information out in the public.”
Levin said he had spoken with his “buddy” Andy McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who had written a column in the conservative National Review suggesting the “media-Democrat complex” was avoiding the story.
The information that Levin read from McCarthy was apparently based on a Nov. 7 report by Louise Mensch, a novelist and former British Parliament member, on Heat Street, a website run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch is a key Trump supporter.
Mensch, citing sources in “the counter-intelligence community,” wrote that the FBI had named Trump in a June 2016 application for a surveillance warrant but was turned down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court secretly reviews applications for warrants related to national security investigations.
A “more narrowly drawn” application was approved in October 2016, Heat Street reported.
No major news organization has verified the Heat Street report, although FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed in congressional testimony Monday that the FBI was investigating whether Trump associates cooperated with Russians accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
On his March 2 show, which originates on New York’s WABC, Levin told listeners that in order to obtain a surveillance warrant from the intelligence court, the government must show probable cause that the target is an agent of a foreign regime.
“The incredible scandal here is the Obama administration was investigating top officials in the Trump campaign, maybe even Trump himself, during the course of the election,” Levin said.
He expressed further outrage at a New York Times report that outgoing Obama administration officials had disseminated information about the Russia investigation throughout the government to ensure the inquiry was not squelched once Trump took office.
“This is a silent coup,” Levin shouted. “Silent, nonviolent coup: That’s what’s going on here.”
The next day, Breitbart — the right-wing tabloid website once led by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist — devoted a story to Levin’s conspiracy theory. The account, which rehashed Levin’s assertions, said the Obama administration had eavesdropped on the Trump campaign, then relaxed National Security Agency rules “to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government.”
The intent, the March 3 article stated, was “ensuring that the information, including the conversations of private citizens, would be leaked to the media.”
The piece circulated in the White House before Trump’s tweet storm the following morning and, according to CNN, “infuriated” the president.
The predawn rat-a-tat of accusations added up to an unprecedented attack by a president on his predecessor. “This is Nixon/Watergate,” Trump tweeted, invoking one of the worst scandals in American political history.
During his 1972 reelection campaign, President Nixon plotted with White House advisors to cover up his campaign’s illegal bugging of the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Under threat of impeachment, Nixon resigned; several aides went to prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other crimes.
But Trump, who for years spread the lie that Obama was born in Africa and thus ineligible to serve as president, produced no evidence to support his wiretap claim. Through a spokesman, Obama vehemently denied the charge.
Still, Trump called on Congress to investigate his assertions, which many doubted from the start. Confounded lawmakers in both parties urged Trump to either put up evidence or recant his claim.
After probing the allegations, top law-enforcement and intelligence officials said there was nothing to back them up. Lawmakers were eager to move on.
But the president would not budge.
Rather, at a combative March 16 media briefing, White House spokesman Spicer made yet another unsubstantiated claim: that British intelligence agents had tapped Trump’s phones on Obama’s behalf. This time, the source was “Fox & Friends,” a morning chat show that cheerleads for the administration and is a Trump favorite.
Spicer read from a transcript of Andrew Napolitano, a Fox commentator, saying three sources claimed that Obama “went outside the chain of command” by calling on Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the NSA, to eavesdrop on Trump with “no American fingerprints.”
The British were furious. GCHQ issued a rare and angry denial. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May also rejected the allegation. The British Embassy in Washington complained to the White House.
Yet Trump declined to back down Friday when asked about the charge at a White House news conference with Angela Merkel. He wisecracked about having “something in common” with the German chancellor, a key U.S. ally that was upset when it was revealed the NSA, under Obama, had tapped her cellphone.
As for Napolitano’s account of British skullduggery, the president praised the former New Jersey judge. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television,” Trump said. “I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
He told reporters they shouldn’t blame him, but “should be talking to Fox.”
Soon after, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith repudiated Napolitano, saying the network “cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary.”
“Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way,” Smith said. “Full stop.” Napolitano has since been kept off the air.
At a House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday, NSA Director Michael S. Rogers denied that the Obama administration had asked the British to spy on Trump. And FBI Director Comey said the Justice Department couldn’t back up Trump’s wiretapping charge.
“I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said. “And we have looked carefully inside the FBI.”
On Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) told reporters that U.S. intelligence “incidentally” picked up communications of Trump transition team members. “Incidental” intercepts of Americans speaking with foreign targets of U.S. surveillance — such as Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador — are routine, and have nothing to do with illegal wiretaps.
Asked whether his findings meant Obama ordered phones in Trump Tower to be tapped, Nunes said simply: “That never happened.”
3:45 p.m.: Updated with additional comments from Nunes.
3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Rep. Devin Nunes.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.