Birth of a conspiracy theory: How Trump's wiretap claim got started

Origins of Trump's story about Obama
Origins of Trump's story about Obama

An incendiary idea first put forward by right-wing radio host Mark Levin is now burning across Washington, fanned by President Trump's tweets and a huge number of supportive commentators and websites -- even though the facts don't back up the conclusion.

Breitbart News has given the conspiracy theory a name: "DeepStateGate." Others are going with "ObamaGate." And Fox News host Sean Hannity is asking: "What did OBAMA know and when did he know it???"

Levin's original idea, advanced on Thursday, was that former President Barack Obama and his allies have mounted a "silent coup" against Trump using "police state" tactics. Levin cherry-picked news stories that supported his thesis and omitted information that cut against it.

The next day, Rush Limbaugh echoed Levin's "silent coup" language, and Breitbart columnist Joel Pollak published an "expanded version of that case."

That's how the idea reached Trump's radar. The Breitbart article "circulated" in the West Wing, a White House official told CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and the information "infuriated" Trump.

To be clear, Levin and Limbaugh and Pollak didn't publish any original reporting. They merely claimed to have connected some dots.

The president's tweetstorm on Saturday morning went even further than Levin and Pollak's opinion pieces. Trump alleged that "Obama was tapping my phones in October," just before Election Day, adding that he "just found out" about it.

There is no evidence to back up this theory. While the government has been investigating Russian attempts to interfere with the election, a spokesman for Obama called any suggestion that Obama or any White House official ordered surveillance against Trump "simply false."

Related: FBI asks Justice Department to refute Trump wiretap claim

"Most reporters I know are digging on this," CNN's Jake Tapper tweeted on Sunday. "But every current intel voice is saying they know of nothing to back up this claim."

Former CIA officer and independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin said on CNN's "New Day" Monday morning that Trump is "taking action based on information he's receiving from far-right, conspiratorial media outlets."

"That is highly concerning," he said.

But some right-wing sites are treating Trump's unfounded claims like undeniable fact. One of the top headlines on The Gateway Pundit on Sunday read: "Incompetent AND Criminal: Obama's Wiretapping of President Trump Icing on the Cake of Worst President Ever."

Other sites are taking a different tack, downplaying the severity of the president's charges against his predecessor.

Levin and Pollak's opinion pieces relied heavily on anonymously sourced reports from the BBC, The Guardian and the new Murdoch-owned conservative outlet Heat Street about requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from June and October 2016.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler said these are "sketchy, anonymously sourced reports." CNN has not been able to confirm them. But those reports, alleging efforts by the FBI to monitor Trump associates with suspected ties to Russia, became the basis of the conspiracy theory.

Trump genuinely believes the reports, according to Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, who said he spoke with the president twice on Saturday in Florida.

"He is very confident he will be proven right, said the first FISA was rejected, second one approved," Ruddy said in an email message on Sunday.

Trump's playbook: Go on offense with a new conspiracy theory

Ruddy added that Trump "seemed to know the whole trails of the FISA actions and was recounting them to me."

This description matches what Breitbart reported on Friday.

Pollak posted a story on Sunday night that reflected the weekend's successful reframing.

"The spotlight is now on President Barack Obama and his administration's alleged surveillance of the Trump campaign," he wrote, "as well as his aides' reported efforts to spread damaging information about Trump."

Levin continued to press the case on Sunday through an appearance on Fox and a steady stream of social media posts.

He dismissed skeptical news reports as "fake news" and insulted individual journalists who disagreed with him.

In an email conversation with CNNMoney, Levin asserted that "the public record is damning of the Obama administration."

"It was investigating the campaign of a presidential candidate of an opposing party during the course of the campaign. Its use of FISA, loosening of NSA distribution requirements, husbanding and protecting information at the behest of White House staff on the way out the door, and recent leaks of confidential and perhaps classified information is extraordinary," he wrote.

"Everything I just said is based on media reports, including and especially the New York Times," he added. "It's time to get to the bottom of the extent of what took place in the Obama administration and who was involved. If Obama had no idea about any of this, then he must not have read the newspapers during his presidency, since some of it was public while he was president."


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