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Trump’s newest Clinton email conspiracy theory, explained

Why the president is tweeting about Obama-appointed watchdog Charles McCullough.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07:   I. Charles McCullough III, inspector general of the intelligence community, testifies during a hearing before House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 7, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing "Oversight of the State Department," focusing on the FBI's recommendation not to prosecute Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for maintaining a private email server during her time as Secretary of State.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Charles McCullough, the former inspector general of the intelligence community, believes he was targeted by a coordinated campaign to silence him after raising questions over the Clinton emails.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has spent the week tweeting a new accusation about Hillary Clinton: that Charles McCullough, the former inspector general of the intelligence community, believes the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails would have harmed American national security.

Trump began the attack on Tuesday, when he wrote, “McCullough, the respected fmr Intel Comm Inspector General, said public was misled on Crooked Hillary Emails. ‘Emails endangered National Security.’ Why aren’t our deep State authorities looking at this? Rigged & corrupt?”

The president returned to the theme on Wednesday, when he tweeted McCullough’s comments again and linked to a Fox News video titled “NEW CLINTON EMAIL BOMBSHELL.”

All of which raises a few questions: Who is Charles McCullough, what did he actually say, and is there really a “deep state” plot to bury the information?

Trump can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails

McCullough, the man at the center of Trump’s new anti-Clinton attack, served as the intelligence community’s watchdog during the Obama administration.

On Tuesday, Fox News aired an interview with McCullough in which, broadly speaking, he makes two claims about Clinton’s emails.

The first is that a number of her emails would have caused “harm to national security” had they been released accidentally or through a hack. He told Fox News reporter Catherine Herridge that their release would have placed “sources and methods, lives and operations” at risk.

The second is that he believes there was a covert campaign designed to silence him after he expressed concern about the emails to the Republican leadership of the Senate intelligence and foreign affairs committees.

“I’m well-aware there was a strategic coordination between the [Clinton presidential] campaign, the State Department, certain officials at the State Department, certain law firms in town, and people on Capitol Hill,” McCullough said.

Among other things, McCullough said that “senior officials” in the administration cautioned him against pursuing the matter with then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; that he received a threat from the Clinton campaign that he would be fired when Clinton won the White House; and that Democratic lawmakers attempted to undermine his work and credibility with various unspecified pressure tactics.

McCullough is making serious allegations. The problem is that there’s no way to know if they’re true.

In both of his tweets, Trump has quoted McCullough’s comments about how the release of Clinton’s emails could’ve caused serious “harm to national security.” That’s clearly meant to suggest there’s something new and scandalous about the claim that the emails were dangerous. But it’s not new information.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, critics in the media and on Capitol Hill questioned and slammed Clinton over and over again for using a personal email server to conduct government business. Since that email wasn’t housed on presumably secure government servers, Clinton was accused of potentially leaving sensitive information vulnerable to hacking or other cybertheft.

The FBI investigated the matter for more than a year. In July 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey declined to recommend criminal charges but slammed Clinton and her colleagues’ use of the private email server and said “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information."

Comey also said that he believed it “is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal email account."

The FBI chief pursued the investigation into her private email so aggressively that he took the controversial move of reopening it just weeks before the election after new evidence emerged — a move that became politically explosive and may have cost Clinton the election.

It’s unclear what Trump is getting at when he talks about some “deep state” effort to silence investigations into Clinton’s emails. If anything, they’ve been given too much attention.

McCullough says he was silenced, but there’s no proof that happened

McCullough’s allegations about a scheme to undermine him are very serious, but they’re also very difficult to prove or disprove at this point.

There is a letter from seven senior Democratic lawmakers in March 2016 accusing McCullough and his State Department counterpart of conducting their email probe with a partisan bias and making errors in their designations of emails as classified or unclassified. But it doesn’t seem to be underhanded or inappropriately threatening in any way — it is, rather, a series of questions designed to make the process more transparent.

McCullough hasn’t yet presented evidence of threats to him or his marginalization in the administration or any kind of coordinated campaign to undermine his credibility. A spokesperson at the Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General declined to comment on the matter, as did spokespeople at the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Without that evidence, it’s difficult to say how much of what he says is true.

For Trump, the veracity of McCullough’s charges is far less important than their sheer existence. The comments allow the president to keep attacking his favorite target, and to use an Obama appointee’s own words to do so. Even more importantly, they help deflect attention from the ongoing investigation into just how recklessly team Trump acted during the campaign. All of which means you should probably expect to see a lot more of McCullough in the weeks ahead.