How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide

How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide
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The political butterfly effect is alive and well in America. A seemingly trivial and misleading disclosure by the Trump administration recently sent the right-wing hysteria industrial complex into overdrive.

The usual mix of pundits, conservative media outlets and congressional Republicans all piled on, whipping the president’s supporters into an election-year frenzy over a nonexistent Obama-led plot to undermine Trump.

The divisive, conspiracy-mongering fallout of (what should have been) a minor political development demands a closer look, especially for its long-term impact on political polarization in the United States.

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Amid the Trump administration’s mishandling of twin national crises and explosive allegations about his presidency, Trump’s approval numbers remain inexplicably high. The president’s uncanny political resilience must be partially chalked up to the persistence of virulent right-wing conspiracy theories, as well as the echo chambers and information bubbles that sustain them.

The latest iteration of this phenomenon involves Michael Flynn, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE’s first national security adviser. Just weeks into the Trump administration, the president fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Pence and the FBI about discussions Flynn had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Fast forward to 2020. Despite Flynn pleading guilty to lying the FBI, the Trump Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to dismiss its case against Flynn. This blatantly political abuse of the rule of law – roundly condemned by no fewer than 2,300 former DOJ officials – resulted in the disclosure of notes about a meeting at the Obama White House on Jan. 5, 2017.

At that meeting, President Obama asked the FBI director if his administration should withhold sensitive information from the incoming Trump team. Obama’s concerns were rooted in Flynn’s calls with the Russian government, which had just mounted a pro-Trump assault on the 2016 presidential election.

While it may seem trivial on its face, the Trump DOJ feigned ignorance about when the notes memorializing the Obama White House meeting were drafted, claiming that they were written “possibly between January 3 and January 5.” But even a cursory understanding makes it clear that the notes reflect the Jan. 5 meeting and, thus, could only have been written on (or after) that day.

The DOJ’s imprecise timeline catalyzed a fresh round of right-wing conspiracy mongering, further entrenching political division in America.

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In early January 2017, as the FBI prepared to close a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn’s odd financial entanglements with Russia’s premier disinformation and propaganda outlet, a different Moscow-related mystery consumed America’s top spies and cops.

Following Russia’s assault on the 2016 election, President Obama retaliated by imposing sweeping diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Kremlin. But the normally combative Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBlumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections Not a pretty picture: Money laundering and America's art market Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' MORE, always eager to escalate an international crisis, did not respond.

Putin’s uncharacteristically tame reaction shocked America’s foreign policy, intelligence and law enforcement communities. After digging through reams of intelligence, the FBI finally made sense of Putin’s behavior: Flynn had convinced Moscow not to respond. His phone calls with the Russian ambassador are what led to Putin’s muted reaction.

As we now know, the FBI learned of Flynn’s discussions with Russia sometime around Jan. 3, 2017. The phone calls, which well could have undercut U.S. pressure on Russia and allowed Trump to cozy up to Putin just weeks after Moscow’s assault on American democracy, convinced the FBI to carry on with its investigation of Flynn’s connections to the Russian government.

The next day, on Jan. 4, FBI agents scrambled to ensure that the Flynn case remained active in the bureau’s electronic system.

Flynn’s legal team incorrectly claimed that the recently disclosed notes of the Jan. 5 Oval Office meeting were written on Jan. 4, the same day agents raced to officially keep the Flynn investigation open.

The Flynn legal team’s mistaken timeline catalyzed an explosion of Trumpian conspiracy mongering. Conservative media outlets and personalities claimed that Obama (and Vice President Biden) “ordered” and “directed” the FBI to keep the Flynn investigation open when, in fact, the FBI had already made that decision before the Jan. 5 White House meeting.

Congressional Republicans jumped into the conspiratorial free-for-fall. Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans GOP may face choice on tax cut or stimulus checks MORE (R-Tenn.) claimed that Obama and Biden “devised,” “managed” and “oversaw” the FBI investigation into Flynn’s calls.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.) misstated that Obama “direct[ed]” the probe, while Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesSunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline MORE (R-Calif.) declared that Obama and Biden “kept this investigation going.”

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPat Fallon wins GOP nomination in race to succeed DNI Ratcliffe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline Wary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker MORE (R-Texas) rocketed into the conspiratorial stratosphere by claiming that Obama and Biden’s supposed “abuse of power” makes “Nixon’s abuses in Watergate pale by comparison.”

All of this Republican hysteria is undercut by the timeline and by those present in the meeting. Soon-to-be acting Attorney General Sally YatesSally Caroline YatesTrump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing MORE recalled that Obama “did not want any additional information” on the Flynn investigation, while outgoing national security adviser Susan Rice noted that Obama instructed the FBI “to proceed as it normally would” with Flynn.

The recently disclosed notes also suggest that Vice President Biden mentioned an obscure law that Flynn may have violated during his calls with the Russian ambassador. But the FBI and the DOJ were well ahead of Biden. Internal emails make clear that bureau lawyers discussed Flynn’s potential violation of the law before the Jan. 5 Oval Office meeting. Moreover, Yates stated that the FBI director was the first to raise it during that meeting.

But what are facts to get in the way of conservative conspiracy mongering? Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWorld's most trafficked mammal gives Trump new way to hit China on COVID-19 The 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Tucker Carlson calls Fauci a 'fraud' after tense hearing MORE (R-Ohio) claimed it “was Biden’s idea to invoke [the law] against Flynn.” Unsurprisingly, conservative pundits echoed this ad nauseam.

Perhaps most importantly, much ink has been spilled over the FBI director’s apparent comment that Flynn’s calls “appear legit.” But while there were no indications that Flynn “passed classified information” to the Russian government, the FBI director also said he “potentially” had concerns that Flynn spoke so frequently with Russia’s ambassador, according to Susan Rice’s memo.

That Flynn did not disclose American secrets to Moscow has no bearing on the fact that he lied to senior Trump officials and to the FBI about the content of his calls.

Ultimately, in an era of extreme political polarization, a seemingly trivial – but highly misleading – disclosure by the Trump administration catalyzed another bruising round of right-wing conspiracy mongering.

Continued misstatements of fact such as these, no matter how insignificant on their face, will only perpetuate unfounded hatred of all things Obama (and Biden), ensuring that stark political divisions will plague America well beyond Election Day.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.