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How ‘Spygate’ Attacks Fizzled

For years, it was the subject of countless Fox News segments, talk radio rants, and viral right-wing tweets and Facebook posts. It spawned Congressional hearings, Justice Department investigations, and investigations of those investigations. President Trump called it “the biggest political crime in the history of our country,” and suggested that its perpetrators deserved 50-year prison sentences.

Now, weeks before the election, “Spygate” — a labyrinthine conspiracy theory involving unproven allegations about a clandestine Democratic plot to spy on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign — appears to be losing steam.

The theory still commands plenty of attention inside the right-wing media sphere. But Mr. Trump’s quest to turn Spygate into a major mainstream issue in this year’s campaign may be coming up short. Data from NewsWhip, a firm that tracks social media performance, shows that stories about Spygate and two related keywords — “Obamagate” and “unmask/unmasked/unmasking”— received 1.5 million interactions on Facebook and from influential Twitter accounts last month, down from about 20 million interactions in May.

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Part of Spygate’s fizzle may be related to the fact that three years on, none of Mr. Trump’s political enemies have been charged with crimes. Last year, a highly anticipated Justice Department inspector general’s report found no evidence of a politicized plot to spy on the Trump campaign — angering believers who thought the report would vindicate their belief in a criminal “deep state” plot against the president.

And this fall, the Spygate faithful got insult added to injury when a Justice Department investigation into one of their core concerns — whether Obama-era officials had acted improperly by “unmasking” the identities of certain people named in intelligence documents — came up empty-handed.

Few right-wing narratives have been as durable as Spygate, which has morphed over time into a kind of catchall theory encompassing various allegations of Democratic malfeasance. Fox News hosts including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson went all in on it, as did Republicans in Congress, including Representative Devin Nunes of California and former Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. But nobody embraced the theory like Mr. Trump, who has returned to it frequently to deflect attention from his own troubles, whether it was the Mueller investigation or his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the election approaches, it’s worth looking back on Spygate’s evolution, both because it illustrates the way that partisan misinformation bubbles up through the right-wing media ecosystem, and, ultimately, because it shows how Mr. Trump’s obsession with a confusing, hard-to-follow narrative may have backfired as a campaign strategy.

Here is a (very) abridged version of the main waypoints in Spygate.

March 2017: Right-wing blogs and media outlets began discussing theories they called “DeepStateGate” or “Obamagate,” a reference to false claims that President Obama had tapped Mr. Trump’s phone.

May 2018: Mr. Trump seized on the news that an F.B.I. informant was sent to meet with members of his campaign staff, dubbing it “Spygate,” and said that it “could be one of the biggest political scandals in history.” Pro-Trump media outlets ran with the unsubstantiated claims. Top-ranking Republicans initially tried to distance themselves from the theory, although many would later embrace it.

April 2019: Spygate gained momentum when William P. Barr, the attorney general, testified to Congress that he believed “spying did occur” on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, appearing to contradict previous Justice Department statements.

December 2019: Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, released a long-awaited report detailing his findings about the origins and conduct of the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation. Mr. Trump’s media allies spent weeks hyping the report. (Sean Hannity predicted it would “shock the conscience.”) Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory also latched onto the Horowitz report, predicting that it would set in motion indictments and mass arrests of the president’s enemies.

But the Horowitz report did not deliver a knockout punch. It revealed errors and lapses in some F.B.I. actions, but found no evidence of political bias in the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation, and rejected Mr. Trump’s suggestion that there was an organized Democratic conspiracy against him.

May 2020: As the country reeled from the Covid-19 pandemic, two developments brought Spygate (which had since been rebranded as “Obamagate”) back onto the national stage. First, the Justice Department dropped its criminal case against the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, a central figure in Spygate, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with a Russian diplomat.

Then, days later, a list of Obama administration officials who might have tried to “unmask” Mr. Flynn was declassified and released by Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence. (“Unmasking,” in intelligence parlance, refers to a process by which officials can seek to reveal the identity of individuals who are referred to anonymously in intelligence documents. Unmasking is common, and such requests are made thousands of times a year.) Those named on the list included former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., giving new fuel to Mr. Trump’s attempt to paint himself as the victim of a partisan conspiracy.

This was, in many ways, the closest that Spygate came to escaping the right-wing media ecosystem. Fox News devoted hours to the theory, which received more airtime than the coronavirus on some days. Mainstream news organizations tried to make sense of the theory, and Mr. Trump himself seemed obsessed with it, even though he often struggled to describe what the conspiracy actually was. In a flurry of more than 100 tweets sent on May 10, Mother’s Day, Mr. Trump raged about Obamagate, and repeated many of the debunked allegations about Obama-era misconduct, Mr. Flynn, and the Russia investigation.

By this point, many Trump supporters had pinned their hopes on two government reports, which they hoped would soon blow the entire scandal wide open.

The first was a sweeping investigation led by John Durham, the U.S. attorney from Connecticut who was tapped by Mr. Barr to look into the origins of the F.B.I.’s Russia probe.

The second was a smaller piece of the Durham investigation led by John Bash, a U.S. attorney Mr. Barr appointed to look into whether Obama-era officials had improperly “unmasked” Mr. Flynn and others.

October 2020: With less than a month to go before the election, Spygate/Obamagate continued to unravel. Mr. Barr has told Republican lawmakers that Mr. Durham’s report would likely not arrive before the election. And the unmasking investigation led by Mr. Bash, which many Spygate aficionados believed would lead to indictments and arrests of top Democrats, instead ended with no findings of irregularities or substantive wrongdoing.

Still, for Mr. Trump, hope springs eternal. He has continued his crusade, comparing Spygate to a “treasonous act” that should disqualify Mr. Biden from the presidency.

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