The conservative media’s ability to create, nurture, and sustain a dubious scandal until mainstream journalists feel pressured to cover it may be the most powerful weapon in contemporary American politics. It represents a significant structural advantage for Republicans. And now, as it’s being trained on intelligence and law-enforcement agencies—and special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s intervention in last year’s elections—it poses a serious threat to the separation of powers and the rule of law.
The Republican scandal machine dogged Barack Obama’s presidency. And, with an assist from Russia, former FBI director James Comey, and some sloppy journalism, it helped convince millions of Americans that supporting a venal, uninformed reality-TV host who’d bragged about sexual assault on a live mic was an acceptable choice in last year’s election, given the alternative.
Now, with that reality-TV host as president, embroiled in allegations of conspiracy and attempted obstruction of justice, the scandal machine is focused on distracting from and derailing the investigations into the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia, and discrediting the law-enforcement and intelligence officials who have conducted them.
The effort began in March, when House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) tried to validate a bizarre tweet by Trump claiming that the Obama administration had wiretapped his campaign. Nunes seized upon the fact that in 2016, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, had “unmasked” the identities of campaign staffers who had been recorded making contacts with foreign operatives. The requests were routine—part of the job—but Nunes rushed to the White House, where he held a press conference to announce that he had briefed White House officials on the supposed “wiretapping.” It was later revealed that he had in fact gotten the information from the White House and was spinning it on Donald Trump’s behalf. This was the day after then–FBI Director James Comey confirmed in testimony before Congress that the bureau was investigating potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Early coverage of Nunes’s stunt was largely dismissive. Multiple intelligence experts from both parties said that Rice’s actions were “normal and appropriate” and that there was “no evidence of wrongdoing.” It was clearly an effort to distract from Trump-Russia, and reporters treated it that way. But the conservative media continued to run with the story, keeping the unmasking “scandal” alive. Nunes also continued to beat that dead horse, “relaunching” his investigation in June, months after supposedly recusing himself from the Russia investigation. And every time he issued a statement or demanded new information from the Department of Justice, mainstream outlets duly covered the news, creating the impression that there were legitimate questions surrounding Rice’s actions.