President Donald Trump is all in on pushing the idea, accurate or not, that the FBI may have inserted a spy into his campaign.
He teased it again Tuesday, on the odd occasion of a meeting with the South Korean President.
"A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign," he said of the FBI he now leads, as his foreign counterpart looked on. "If they had spies in my campaign that would be a disgrace to this country. It would be very illegal."
The truth, which appears to be that the FBI spoke with a confidential source about his dealings with Trump campaign officials, requires some nuance. But as with his unfounded claims that then-President Barack Obama "wiretapped" his phones at Trump Tower, the President has taken a kernel of truth and contorted it into an all-out conspiracy theory of entrenched bureaucrats out to get him.
Some of his Cabinet secretaries are joining him. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Tuesday that she was "unfamiliar" with the US intelligence community's repeated and unanimous assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.
Trump's tortured relationship with his Department of Justice is the heart of the "deep state" fears he brought into the White House but it seems to have festered as morsels of information emerged about the methodical and apparently wide-reaching special counsel investigation into possible collusion with Russians by Trump campaign officials.
Trump has not been cowed into silence by the probe, but rather has lashed out on social media and during talks with reporters, calling the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller a "witch hunt."
If you put together the wiretapping allegation, the apparently failed demands of personal loyalty from people like former FBI Director James Comey and now the teased idea of a government spy infiltrating his campaign, you come away with the picture of an executive ready to uproot portions of government.
"You have a President who truly believes there is such a thing as a 'deep state,' the FBI is at the center of the deep state and is out to get him. There simply has been no evidence brought forth to support that," Bob Baer, a former CIA agent and a CNN analyst, said Monday.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Trump's spy theory "a major threat to the rule of law."
In attempting to protect himself from Mueller and erode trust in the special counsel and FBI with these outbursts, Trump has also declared war on the institutions of American government, inviting the public to question them in the same way he does.
It's working, too.
CNN's most recent polling, conducted in May, suggested Republicans were shifting more negative on the Mueller probe as the President turned his rhetorical fire against it.
And it's not just the Mueller probe that Americans, particularly Republicans, are beginning to doubt.
A Pew survey released in February showed the favorable view of the FBI among Republicans and Americans who lean Republican was down 10 percentage points -- from 65% to 55% -- in one year. Negative views of the FBI among that subset rose from 21% in 2017 to 36% in 2018. Democrats, meanwhile, view the FBI more favorably.
That's still a majority favorable view for the FBI in February. Trust in government more broadly is much lower, 18%, according to a Pew survey out in December.
Trump seizes on that distrust and fuels it with his "deep state" conspiracy rhetoric.
Trump has been fueling theories about conspiracies for years. When he didn't like Obama, he became a major backer of the silly but subversive idea that Obama was not born in the US and therefore not a legitimate president. Later, when Trump was the underdog to win the White House, he said over and over that the system was rigged, presumably so he could dispute the results if he lost.
But he won. When he didn't win the popular vote, he became adamant that millions of votes had been cast illegally, oddly working to cast doubt on the Rust Belt wave that swept him in. Frustrated by court decisions, he's called out the 9th Circuit and said the system is "broken and unfair." And now, faced with Mueller, he cries "witch hunt" and suggests a "deep state" within government was spying on him.
Trump does not trust the government he leads -- and if that wears off on people, it could end up being a legacy of his presidency.
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