President Donald Trump's weekend allegations of a "Nixon/Watergate" plot to wiretap his 2016 campaign confused intelligence analysts, befuddled members of Congress and created fresh work for fact-checkers. Within 24 hours of his allegations, made on Twitter, the administration conceded that the president was basing his claim not on closely held information, but on a Breitbart News story quoting the conservative radio host and author Mark Levin.
But in conservative media, where the claim originated, Trump has gotten credit for cracking open a plot by a "deep state" of critics and conspirators to bring down his presidency. And the perpetrator is former president Barack Obama.
"It would [seem] that the 'Russia hacking' story was concocted not just to explain away an embarrassing election defeat, but to cover up the real scandal," wrote Breitbart's senior editor-at-large Joel Pollak.
"Trump confounds these people because he's always a step or two ahead," Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on Monday. "It's a direct line to the Democrat Party and Obama and members of the Obama administration that Trump is signaling, 'You don't face the usual feckless bunch of opponents who never fight you back.'"
Trump's wiretap allegations completed a feedback loop that started during the presidential campaign and has gotten sturdier since. The president's media diet includes cable television news shows, like "Fox and Friends," where guests and hosts regularly defend him. On Twitter, he frequently elevates stories that grew in conservative talk radio, or on sites like Breitbart News and InfoWars, out of view of a startled mainstream media. Monday's news cycle demonstrated just how strong the loop was, as Levin himself appeared on Fox News for 12 barely interrupted minutes to share his theory that the alleged wiretapping was a political hit job.
"Donald Trump is the victim. His campaign is the victim," said Levin, as a Fox News "alert" scrolled over the screen. "These are police state tactics. If this had been done to Barack Obama, all hell would break loose. And it should."[...]
Republicans in Congress tend to give the president the benefit of their doubt. In interviews and comments since Saturday, they have suggested that Trump overstated what was known - conflating, for example, media reports on wiretapping with a growing theory that the Obama administration seeded operatives throughout the government to undo his presidency. But they have paired that critique with promises to study what he's alleged.
"The president has at his fingertips tens of billions of dollars in intelligence apparatus," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in a Monday interview with CBS News. "I think he might have something there, but if not, we're going to find out." [...]
. "Obama's goal to 'oust' Trump from presidency via impeachment or resignation," wrote InfoWars commentator Paul Joseph Watson on Thursday. On Friday, the site blew up a report about banks settling with nonprofit groups after fraud lawsuits to tell readers that Obama had "funneled billions to liberal activist groups."
More mainstream sites have also stoked theories that Obama was pulling strings. Last Wednesday, the Daily Mail published an interview with an unnamed "close family friend," who claimed that former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett had moved into Obama's D.C. home to help "mastermind the insurgency" against Trump.
"The Daily Mail story is completely false," said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the former president.
But the Jarrett story went viral on the right; on a Fox Business segment over the weekend, the radio host Tammy Bruce cited as an "under-covered" revelation that demonstrated the forces arrayed against Trump. In her Monday interview with Gowdy, Ingraham argued that a Watergate-level scandal was building - but at one point, she suggested, hopefully, that the president was not simply basing his rhetoric on what was in conservative media.
"He must know something beyond what's on Breitbart," Ingraham said.
"I would hope," said Gowdy, "given the fact that he's the leader of the free world."