One can’t go a few minutes discussing politics without getting into some misinformation and outright falsehood. Whether it was the infamous Uranium One conspiracy, pizza gate, or any other lie, the rise of misinformation and faux conspiracies are a centerpiece of the right-wing media echo chamber. And nothing is more evident of that conspiracism than the recent Fox News claim that Hillary Clinton’s campaign spied on Trump and his allies. This claim, as crude as it is, is not surprising. But this lie must be handled.
Background To the Propaganda
The claim in question comes from an article by Fox’s Brooke Singman, who claims that a recent court filing by Special Counsel John Durham sent to the court on Friday, proves that the Clinton campaign was paying Sussman to “infiltrate” the Trump campaign. In her, article Singman claims that “Lawyers for the Clinton campaign paid a technology company to “infiltrate” servers belonging to Trump Tower, and later the White House, in order to establish an “inference” and “narrative” to bring to government agencies linking Donald Trump to Russia….” However, those claims are far from supported by the filing by Durham and his team. Right off the bat, the filing does not ever mention the word ‘inflitrate’ or even suggest any evidence of spying by Clinton’s campaign or its leadership. Instead, it notes connections and payment data that suggest, at best, that Sussman was dishonest about his motivations.
The filing pertains to Michael Sussman, a former federal prosecutor and legal partner of Perkins Coie, a law firm based in Seattle. In an indictment, prosecutors argue that Sussman claimed to be handing over information related to potential Russian involvement in the Trump campaign based on his goodwill and not on behalf of a client, something that prosecutors say is demonstrably false. Though Sussman has pleaded not guilty, and the case is ongoing. But what is of particular importance is that throughout the new filing, all of the claims presented by the prosecution are connected to the actions of a tech executive with whom Sussman worked and Sussman himself.
In his filing, Durham wrote, “The defendant’s billing records reflect that the defendant repeatedly billed the Clinton Campaign for his work on the Russian Bank-1 allegations. In compiling and disseminating these allegations, the defendant and Tech Executive-1 also had met and communicated with another law partner at Law Firm-1, who was then serving as General Counsel to the Clinton Campaign (“Campaign Lawyer-1”). Additionally, the filing argues that the tech executive in question, Rodney Joffe, exploited his connections to mine DNS data from the White House. It is important to note two things: Firstly, these are allegations and are not proven in a court of law yet. Sussman remains innocent until proven guilty. Additionally, the filing asserts that Sussman billed the Clinton campaign for his work, but it does not provide evidence that the campaign paid him or was aware of the methods used Sussman allegedly employed.
Adding Context to a Conspiracy
Then there is the issue of what data was examined in the first place and what Sussman was trying to do. Sussman was one of the cybersecurity lawyers who learned of the attack on the DNC’s servers in 2016 after being informed by then DNC CEO Amy Dacy. As such, Sussman and other cybersecurity experts were concerned about the potential for further Russian malware in American infrastructure, including the White House and private institutions. Indeed, Sussman’s meetings with the FBI in 2016 and later in 2017 were based on that very concern. Military researchers went so far as to reach out to Georgia Tech about Russian malware and asked them to help scrutinize various pieces of data provided by Neustar, including data that corresponded to the White House.
In other words, Sussman and his colleagues were using data that was almost certainly public and were looking to determine where certain data was coming from. Nowhere in any of Durham’s filings did the prosecution say that DNS data was hacked, read, or in anyway stolen. If that constitutes spying, then the definition has expanded significantly. To put this in simpler terms, Sussman and his colleagues were effectively watching how the mail was delivered to the White House, found something they thought was suspicious, reported it to authorities, and possibly hid their reasons for watching the mail in the first place.
Complicated Explanation, Lazy Reporting
While explaining the issue at hand takes time and effort, getting it wrong is easy, especially when one intends to sell a narrative to an already primed audience. Ever since Trump became the center of the Republican Party, his ridiculous claims have been treated as gospel. Claims that the election was stolen, Hillary sold uranium to Russia, and many more are all part of the Republican media sphere. They are key components of the Republican and Trumpist identity. To deny them is to assert that the GOP and Trump are deceptive to their audience. Claims get recycled and repeated ad nauseum until they become true to those willing to listen. And this story is no different. It is nothing more than the recycled idea that Obama was spying on Trump, an idea that the former president peddled in 2017. Instead of contextualizing a complicated and somewhat narrow case, Fox has given credence to yet another conspiracy theory that will further polarize America when it should have been treated as the nothingburger it is.