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Donald Trump

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The baseless claim that the FBI may have planted evidence while carrying out a court-approved search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence on Monday has surged through right-wing media, as the former president’s allies continue their effort to turn their audiences against the probe and shield Trump from accountability.

The FBI searched the premises after obtaining a warrant from a federal magistrate judge and “removed a number of boxes of documents” as part of a federal investigation into whether Trump had illegally “taken a trove of material with him to his home at Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House that included sensitive documents – and then, in the Justice Department’s view, had failed to fully comply with requests that he return the disputed material,” the New York Times reported. Politico concluded after consulting with legal experts on the handling of classified documents that “it’s highly unlikely the DOJ would have pursued – and a judge would have granted – such a politically explosive search warrant without extraordinary evidence.”

Trump could shed light on the events by releasing the copy of the search warrant his lawyers received at the time, which would detail what investigators were seeking and what laws they convinced a judge may have been violated, as well as the inventory they provided of what they seized. He reportedly has “no plans” to do so. Instead, Trump and his right-wing media supporters have responded with fury and conspiracy theories.

Trump’s propagandists began speculating on Tuesday that the FBI may have planted evidence at the scene. The notion first seems to have first surfaced in an interview with one of Trump’s lawyers, who suggested it was true, and spread rapidly throughout the day through the right-wing media ecosystem, including on Fox News. By Wednesday morning, Trump himself was nodding to it on his Truth Social platform.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; the conspiracy theory’s proponents have offered none at all. But the evidence or lack thereof is not the point — the theory serves as a hedge against the prospect that investigators eventually produce damning material gleaned from the search: They are priming their audiences to disbelieve the validity of that evidence.

The conspiracy theory first surfaced on Tuesday morning after Christina Bobb, a former host for the fringe-right One America News Network who now serves as one of Trump’s lawyers, said during an interview on the Trumpist streaming channel Real America’s Voice that she “was not allowed to observe” the search.

Host Karyn Turk returned to that point later in the interview, citing “people asking” in the stream’s chat whether anyone would have been able to see whether “something’s planted.” Bobb responded that “There is no security that something wasn't planted,” adding, “I’m not saying that that’s what they did.”

Over the course of the day, the theory was adopted by prominent right-wing media figures with close ties to Trump. Describing the search as evidence of “tyranny” and a “war on the American people,” Fox contributor and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Trumpist influencer Charlie Kirk, “You'll notice they didn't allow anybody on the Trump side into Mar-a-Lago. So we have no idea whether or not they planted evidence.”

“Yes, that's exactly right,” Kirk replied. “ I have a couple of thoughts. Number one, I wish I trusted our law enforcement. You need some form of law enforcement to have a civil society, but I'm right with you. I say, oh, they're planting evidence. How disappointing of a place we are in our country where our immediate reaction is that our own law enforcement agency might be planting evidence against a former president.”

The notion also surfaced on Infowars’ The Alex Jones Show, where former Trump White House aide Steve Bannon suggested that the FBI had been on a “planting expedition.”

“I wouldn't put it past them to have planted stuff – that – this is a criminal,” Bannon continued. “The FBI and the DOJ are essentially lawless criminal organizations.”

Jones, a notorious conspiracy theorist, replied, “Exactly. How do we know a hundred agents in there with their long history of planting things, didn't plant something classified?”

By late afternoon, the totally baseless claim hit Fox’s most-watched program, The Five, with co-host Jesse Watters asking, “How do we know they’re not planting evidence right now?”

Watters went further that night on his 7 p.m. ET show.

“What the FBI is probably doing is planting evidence, which is what they did during the Russia hoax. We also have a hunch they doctored evidence to get the warrant -- again, what they did during the Russia hoax,” he said during his opening monologue Wednesday night. “So, this is a big fishing expedition, using anything they can against Trump to take him out of the race for 2024.”

Watters also described the FBI as “bloodthirsty savages who want to see you humiliated and violated” and the search as “a threat to anybody who opposes them.”

Trump lawyer Alina Habba further fueled the conspiracy theory, telling Watters later in the program, “Quite honestly, I’m concerned they might have planted something. You know, at this point, who knows? I don’t trust the government, and that’s a very frightening thing as an American.”

On Wednesday morning, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt also nodded to the conspiracy theory. “His lawyer said they brought in backpacks, what was in those backpacks?” she asked. “Did they bring those in to fill them up or did they have something in there?"

This is how a conspiracy-minded talking point is constructed in real time. It is reminiscent of how right-wing media figures, in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, attributed the widespread violence to antifa infiltrators. In that case too, the theory was floated without anything resembling credible proof. But that did not prevent it from becoming taken as gospel by a large swath of the right.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

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