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Trump accidentally undercuts his own “deep state” FBI conspiracy theory

Trump thinks Obama had it out for him in 2016. George Stephanopoulos debunked that idea with one question.

During an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that aired in full on Sunday, President Donald Trump accidentally undercut the conspiracy theory he’s been pushing about how the Obama-era FBI leadership purportedly conspired to keep him from winning the 2016 election.

After Trump demeaned top FBI brass as “lowlives,” claimed that the entire investigation into Russian interference and his campaign’s role in it was “a setup” that President Barack Obama “must have known about,” and referenced an August 2016 text message in which then-FBI agent Peter Strzok mentioned “an insurance policy,” Stephanopoulos asked him a critical question.

“If they were determined to prevent you from becoming president, why wouldn’t they leak it beforehand?” he said.

But instead of pushing back, Trump acknowledged that Stephanopoulos’s premise was correct.

“You know what, you’d have to ask them,” Trump said. “And you know what — had that gone out before the election, I don’t think I would have had enough time to defend myself.”

In other words, even Trump agrees that had top FBI officials leaked word about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia being under investigation in the months leading up to the election, it likely would have been fatal to his presidential hopes.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, then-FBI Director James Comey repeatedly publicized the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, while Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani appeared to be the recipient of leaks about it. Two days before Comey sent a letter to Congress announcing that the Clinton email case had been reopened, Giuliani went on Fox News and said Comey had “a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next two days.” Giuliani later admitted to receiving a heads up about the “surprise.”

In short, the actual timeline of events in 2016 suggests that if anything, the FBI’s actions were a net positive for Trump’s campaign, not a negative. But that reality is inconvenient for Trump, so he’s trying to rewrite history — in more ways than one.

The FBI actually had good reason to launch a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign

Not only is there no evidence that the FBI tried to derail Trump’s presidential bid with leaks or in any other way, but it’s worth noting that bureau brass had good reason to be investigating Trump in the first place.

The FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian agents in July 2016, after Australia’s top diplomat in Britain informed his American counterparts about a conversation he had two months earlier with George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

During a night of heavy drinking in London, Papadopoulos bragged to the Australian about his knowledge that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign,” as the New York Times put it in a December 2017 report.

You don’t have to take the Times’s word for it. Even the so-called “Nunes memo,” prepared by then-House Intelligence Committee chair and staunch Trump ally Devin Nunes (R-CA) and released early last year, acknowledges that the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign was “triggered” by evidence presented to American officials about Papadopoulos having secretive contacts with Kremlin agents when it was released about a year ago.

But Trump and his allies have tried to muddy the waters about the origins of the Russia investigation by insisting it actually started with the Steele dossier, an unverified opposition research document that includes outrageous claims about the Russian government taping Trump watching prostitutes urinate on a hotel bed in Moscow in 2013. Fox News has helped Trump normalize this lie, and Trump backers have continued to push it during national television interviews — including as recently as Sunday, when Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) did so during an appearance on Meet the Press.

Even though the Nunes memo and the Mueller report acknowledge that the Russia investigation originated with Papadopoulos boasting about his inside knowledge of what Russian hackers were up, the efforts of Trump and his allies to draw this into question have had an impact. There are multiple active investigations into the origins of the Russia investigation, and during his testimony before the Senate last month, Attorney General William Barr suggested, without evidence, that there’s more to the story than has so far publicly been revealed.

Trump and his allies struggle with tough interviewers

The gaping hole in Trump’s FBI conspiracy theory that Stephanopoulos identified in his line of questioning has long been one Trump allies have struggled to explain — at least in contexts where interlocutors are willing to challenge them. For instance, during an interview in late 2017, CNN host John Berman quickly debunked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) when he echoed Trump and claimed the FBI had it out for Trump.

“You think James Comey — it went all the way to the top of the FBI — to keep Donald Trump from being president,” Berman said. “If that’s true, why then did he come out, again, and open up the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, and never even tell us before the election about the investigation into alleged Trump collusion? If he was trying to keep Donald Trump from getting elected, don’t you think he might tell voters that?”

All Jordan could say to Berman was “we’ll find out” — a response nearly as lame as the “you’d have to ask them” Trump offered to Stephanopoulos.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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