Recent history confirms beyond doubt two truths about social media and “alternative facts”: The former has not only unleashed something closely resembling “road rage” onto the digital highway on which too many of us spend way too much time but also has encouraged and hastened the spread of outrageously fabricated or conveniently exaggerated “news.” So poisoned are many of us in our political passions that we lustfully embrace and post what by all logic should arouse skepticism.
For the few who see past their political opinions, the reality is increasingly terrifying. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian operatives spent 2016 setting loose via social media fake news stories from dubious sources cunningly designed to not only influence the presidential election but pit American against American and fuel greater distrust in institutions such as our electoral system and federal law enforcement. Considering the state of our nation at present, can anyone really say they haven’t succeeded?
Worse, can anyone really say our political leaders haven’t been bitten by the very same toxic bug?
Last week I was phoned twice by a prominent Waco Republican who in times past has occasionally contacted me to politely but firmly serve notice when the Trib has, in his view, strayed left of traditional center-right moorings. I suppose I take his calls more seriously than some because, while we might disagree on individual issues, I recognize that his arguments, always civilly and maturely put, are rooted in his deep faith in America and its institutions.
This time, however, he was more agitated: “This morning [Republican Congressman] Bill Flores retweeted a story from the Gateway Pundit, of all places, attacking the FBI. I’m outraged and I called his office. They sounded bored, but he needs to be called out on something like this, retweeting a story from a fringe, conspiracy website and encouraging his constituents to distrust the very institution that protects us from hostile foreign nations.”
Sure enough, the low-key conservative congressman who represents Waco and Central Texas had on Jan. 22 retweeted a story from Gateway Pundit involving the possibility of a “secret society” embedded in the Federal Bureau of Investigation dedicated to undermining President Trump. This “secret society” reference, quite possibly made in jest, originally surfaced in an exchange of private, post-election text messages between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok, then engaged in a romance. Both make clear their doubts about a Trump presidency.
Flores’ retweeting of a Fox News interview, via Gateway Pundit link or not, should come as no surprise. Fox TV hosts and right-wing talk radio have gone into frantic overdrive in recent days encouraging the idea that the FBI is biased in its attitude toward the president. If true, this might taint Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation looking into whether the president’s inner circle conspired with Russians to manipulate U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election and whether President Trump sought to derail a lawful federal investigation in 2017 — in short, obstruct U.S. justice.
When I reached Flores, he readily acknowledged being uninformed about Gateway Pundit, which the German Marshall Fund reports is one of a slew of alt-right sites spread and “amplified” by Russian propagandists, more readily linking Americans online to right-wing, conspiracy-theory websites that champion Trump and vilify Democrats. Flores said he saw only the handy link to a Fox News interview with fellow Republican Reps. Trey Gowdy and John Ratcliffe — and thus retweeted the entire package, complete with controversial Gateway Pundit link. His excuse seems credible enough.
“I didn’t even know who the Gateway Pundit was,” Flores told me. “Candidly, when I retweeted that, all I was paying attention to were the Fox interviews. I guess that’s something I’m going to have to be more careful about in the future. Actually, it was either the day before or that same evening I had watched the Fox interview with Trey Gowdy and John Ratcliffe. If it had been other people, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but Trey and Ratcliffe are both very solid. They don’t say something unless they feel pretty comfortable about it.”
All of which raises uniquely 21st-century questions: If the congressman retweeted the Fox News interview without the Gateway Pundit link, would he still necessarily be doing the bidding of Russian operatives, assuming Russians are actually responsible for such shenanigans? If so, does this raise valid questions about Fox News and its political motives? How about the two lawmakers interviewed? And if the FBI is indeed tainted, as Trump and his adoring supporters claim, shouldn’t the public know about it, even if it risks further eroding public confidence in our federal law enforcement?
Then again, all of this also raises alarming questions about the judgment and discipline of Republican lawmakers who seem so eager to protect their president and their power in Congress that they will desperately encourage scurrilous, possibly unsubstantiated claims attacking federal law enforcement — in short, throwing to the wind the very caution they regularly blame news media for not demonstrating. Certainly Flores is now part of a contingent of federal lawmakers suggesting serious problems in the FBI.
During my interview with Flores, he referred to a three-and-a-half-page secret memo produced under Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ direction. It purports to show top-level abuses by the FBI and Department of Justice in surveillance of Trump campaign activities. I’m surprised any self-respecting Republican would trust anything involving Nunes at this point, given his ethically compromised past on this same committee as an obvious Trump stooge. In any case, Flores said he had read the secret memo but couldn’t talk much of its damning, thus-far classified contents. But, he told me, “I hope this will be released because it will curl your toes.”
Meanwhile, Flores’ very troubled Republican constituent phoning me amidst all this intrigue sounded more like Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff. To quote Schiff, also a House Intelligence Committee member, on the mysterious Nunes memo: “This is designed to undermine the FBI, the Department of Justice, create uncertainty and doubt about the professionalism of the bureau, so if Mueller produces something really incriminating, they can somehow discredit it. Or if the president tries to do what he did earlier in trying to fire Mueller and [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein, this will cloud the issue enough to protect the president.”
No less than former Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, onetime head of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI special agent, fears fellow Republicans are making a colossal mistake tying their electoral fate to the Nunes memo, which reportedly stresses FBI abuses in procuring Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants. Rogers told CNN this week that Nunes’ likely simplification of the process may well cherry-pick evidence, leaving out crucial details on everything from the extreme vetting behind FISA warrants by both FBI and DOJ officials to pivotal corroborating evidence used to obtain such warrants. And Wednesday the FBI released a press statement to that effect, expressing “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Reports indicate Trump’s own political appointee, FBI Director Christopher Wray, opposes the memo’s release because, in the words of the Washington Post, it “paints a false narrative.”
Flores, however, claims politically motivated skullduggery, though he balks at indicting the entire FBI: “What makes your conversation hard here is that I can’t tell you what’s in the memo at this point [because it’s classified], but I don’t think there’s a secret society. But there did seem to be a group that was actively working against Trump and supporting Hillary [Clinton]. But I don’t know about any secret society. I haven’t said anything about secret societies. I don’t know whether there is or not. I do know there were bad activities involving a small number of people that worked closely with the political appointees for the past administration.”
None of which reassured Flores’ very concerned and very conservative constituent back in Waco (who asked that his name not be published for fear he might be socially and professionally ostracized by his fellow Republicans). He now fears that Republican leadership — rather than firmly guiding Trump through the institutions of governance — is instead helping him sully and dismantle it. Worse, he says that many of his fellow conservatives here in Central Texas have told him they “hate and fear the people who make up the Democratic coalition — Americans, except counting illegal aliens — more than they do Vladimir Putin or Russia. Quite a few of them just don’t have a problem with Russia.”
Put it together and you have a country in slow-motion implosion. And the fact that Flores and other Republicans are pressing to release the Republican-written Nunes memo even as an alternate Democratic memo on the same evidence is conveniently blocked by the Republican-run House Intelligence Committee makes abundantly clear this is more about politics than getting at the truth. Why don’t they release these dueling memos at the same time?
“I voted for Trump, but I expected Republicans to have some balls and stand up for what’s right and what’s wrong, and they obviously don’t,” Flores’ outraged constituent told me after I dutifully called him back to report his congressman’s comments. “A number of them [local Republicans] have told me they don’t care what’s right or wrong anymore. They consider themselves to be in a war with progressives and with Democrats and so anything goes. I think you’re seeing this with Bill [Flores] and this crazy memo that Nunes concocted on his own. So they’ve gone into this anything-goes mode and think they need to tear the FBI down to keep their agenda in place. They’ve bought into this deal that they’ve got to stay with Trump, who is a total con artist. I mean, somebody like Bill is bound to see he’s nothing but a con artist and a fraud.”
Last week during a press conference with Texas press, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, second in command of the Republican Senate, acknowledged to us that, yes, he had been informed by Twitter that he unwittingly interacted with Russia-linked sites that sought to influence the 2016 presidential election. He quite correctly highlighted, as a respected member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the ongoing “problem [online] of people pretending to be somebody they’re not and trying to instill chaos and misinformation in our elections or our political discourse.”
Left unsaid: Whether federal lawmakers, their political operatives and even the president of the United States now risk the integrity of our constitutional republic by themselves feeding rumors, exaggerations and whoppers that give comfort to the enemy and confound the citizenry.