Over the last 72 hours, the President of the United States has leaned into a conspiracy theory that goes like this: During the 2016 presidential race, President Barack Obama -- via the FBI -- placed a "spy" within Trump's campaign for purely political reasons.
Trump made that charge plain in a tweet Friday morning:
"Can anyone even imagine having Spies placed in a competing campaign, by the people and party in absolute power, for the sole purpose of political advantage and gain? And to think that the party in question, even with the expenditure of far more money, LOST!"
There's a tendency to write this latest Trump claim off as Trump being Trump. He has proven time and again that he is willing to stray from established facts in pursuit of a narrative that is more favorable to him -- from the size of his inauguration crowds to the idea that Obama ordered a wiretap on him during the last presidential campaign.
But the fact that this is what Trump does shouldn't distract us from the allegations here: Donald Trump is saying his predecessor as president used the leading law enforcement entity in the country to spy on him because Obama/the "deep state" didn't want someone as unconventional as Trump to be president.
To be clear: There is zero public evidence that Trump's claims are anywhere close to the truth.
What we know is that the FBI used a confidential human source to talk to several Trump campaign advisers, including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, during the campaign. The bureau did so because it had concerns about conversations those two men had with Russians. The confidential source was deployed to suss out what the Russians had told Page and Papadopoulos so as to gain insight into Russian meddling efforts. The source was never "placed" or "embedded" in Trump's campaign.
That's what we know, according to knowledgeable sources who have spoken to CNN among other media outlets. On Thursday, the Department of Justice held two briefings for a select group of congressional lawmakers to go over classified information about the confidential source and how he was used. After those meetings, none of the Republicans who attended had much of anything to say; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said only that nothing he learned surprised him.
Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, who attended both briefings, was blunt about the meetings.
"Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign," Schiff told reporters Thursday afternoon.
What appears to be happening here is that Trump has seized on an unfounded rumor circulating among conservative media types and the likes of House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, about the allegedly nefarious motives of the confidential source used by the FBI. He has not only maintained his belief in that conspiracy but amplified it over the last few days even as all available evidence continues to suggest that there is simply no "there" there.
The "why" behind all of this is simple: Trump and his allies in the conservative media are in the midst of an extended campaign to discredit the FBI and the broader Justice Department. The reason for that is simple: Trump is concerned about the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and the possibility of collusion between members of his campaign and the Russians.
The more doubt Trump can cast about the DOJ's motives, the easier it will be to dismiss or downplay the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller. This is all the deep state working against us, Trump will argue. They spied on my campaign! They tapped my phones! We can't trust anything they say!
That Trump's strategy is totally transparent doesn't make it any less of a threat to norms of what we do -- and should -- expect from a president. Ignoring established facts because they don't comport with the version you want to be true is dangerous enough. Doing so when it undermines basic confidence in our governing and law enforcement institutions is something else. And, the President of the United States doing so -- repeatedly -- is something that would have been hard to imagine prior to Trump's arrival on the political scene.
What Trump is doing is destructive to the very country he had pledged to make great again. There's just no other way to see it.
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