COMMENTARY

Trump's new "spying" Clinton conspiracy theory is a success as cowardly mainstream media confounded

Headline writers won't call out Trump's lies about the "Durham report" — even as he's threatening Clinton's life

By Amanda Marcotte

Published February 16, 2022 1:12PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton, John Durham and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/United States Attorney's Office, District of Connecticut)
Hillary Clinton, John Durham and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/United States Attorney's Office, District of Connecticut)

Have you heard of the latest conspiracy theory fueling the bizarre fantasy life of the right?

The liars of the right definitely think they've got a hot one with this "Durham report," an official-sounding document that Republican propagandists will have you believe "proves" Hillary Clinton was spying on Donald Trump. The "report," however, is actually just a court filing made by John Durham, a right-wing lawyer installed in the Department of Justice by Trump and then-attorney general Bill Barr for the obvious purpose of generating conspiracy theories to feed into the right-wing propaganda mill. Fox News has been humping this non-report nonstop. Trump just used it as an excuse to once again threaten Hillary Clinton's life. And unfortunately, the mainstream media is failing to push back by labeling this conspiracy theory for the bucket of nonsense that it is.

RELATED: Right-wing media's latest "bombshell" — the Durham report — is a nothingburger

Mainstream media is letting the right's tendency to use confusing accusations and dense language scare them off of direct and clear descriptions of lies as lies. Certainly, there's woe in the future of anyone who actually tries to read this supposed "evidence" for Clinton's "spying operation." The court filing is full of techno argle-bargle that would cause the eyes of even the most enthusiastic programmer to glaze over, much less the average journalist.  

The Government's evidence at trial will also establish that among the Internet data Tech Executive-1 and his associates exploited was domain name system ("DNS") Internet traffic pertaining to (i) a particular healthcare provider, (ii) Trump Tower, (iii) Donald Trump's Central Park West apartment building, and (iv) the Executive Office of the President of the United States ("EOP"). (Tech Executive-1's employer, Internet Company-1, had come to access and maintain dedicated servers for the EOP as part of a sensitive arrangement whereby it provided DNS resolution services to the EOP. Tech Executive-1 and his associates exploited this arrangement by mining the EOP's DNS traffic and other data for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.)

So if you feel baffled, imagine how impossible it is that Donald "Maybe Inject Bleach?" Trump understood any of this language. He certainly couldn't explain why he claims this is a "scandal far greater in scope than Watergate."

Spoiler alert: It's definitely not.


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Many gallant reporters — including Jon Skolnik of Salon — actually tried to figure out what the hell Durham is on about. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that this is a big, fat nothingburger — another in a long line of empty right-wing conspiracy theories about the Clintons that dates all the back to Whitewater. Yet, the mainstream media is once again letting right-wing bullying scare them off of plainly labeling lies and conspiracy theories for what they are.

The headline for the New York Times debunking of the Durham conspiracy theory lamely called it "off track," even though "plainly nonsense" is a conclusion anyone who actually reads the article — which will be a tiny percentage of people — would reach. Worse is the Washington Post's supposed "fact check," which is headlined, "Here's why Trump once again is claiming 'spying' by Democrats," without noting that it's a lie or falsehood. The article debunks Trump, but again, few will actually read the whole article, especially since it's full of the same dense legalese and techno-babble. Worse, CNN simply ran with, "Special counsel Durham alleges Clinton campaign lawyer used data to raise suspicions about Trump," replete with the "one side says/the other says"-style reporting, without indicating that the Trump side is a bunch of loony liars, as usual. 

This failure to call Trump's lies out for what they are is especially troubling in light of Trump exploiting this conspiracy theory to call, once again, for the death of Hillary Clinton.

RELATED: Republicans have hijacked the process: Congressional hearings are now rife with conspiracy theories

 It's "the sort of thing that directly endangers people by putting a target on them," as Aaron Rupar of Public Notice wrote, and isn't just conjecture. Trump supporters have repeatedly attacked, attempted to kill, or killed people he has targeted with such rhetoric, from the El Paso shooting to the Capitol insurrection. In fact, there's already been one famous attempt on Clinton's life by a Trump supporter acting on his hero's rhetoric. 

The obtuse nature of the "Durham report" is typical of right-wing conspiracy theories, as anyone can attest who has tried to figure out what the hell "Benghazi" is about or what the QAnoners believe. These conspiracy theories are more elaborate than the family trees of "Game of Thrones," full of contradictions and red herrings, and impossible for even the people who are making this crap up to follow along. This is very much by design because it works so well at gaming the flaws in the mainstream media. 


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For one thing, the confounding nature of right-wing conspiracy theories scares off would-be debunkers. As Charlie Savage at the New York Times wrote, they "tend to involve dense and obscure issues, so dissecting them requires asking readers to expend significant mental energy and time," that is energy and time most people don't have. Sadly, a lot of even well-meaning people will not realize that this is a good sign that they can write the conspiracy theory off completely. Instead, they'll lean on the shortcut of assuming that this smoke must mean there's a fire. And to help prop up the illusion of fire, the right has grown adept at putting an official-seeming gloss on the smoke they generate. They use prosecutors and congressional hearings to make their conspiracy theories seem more legitimate. Unfortunately, those strategies also intimidate the media into not calling out lies for what they are, as evidenced by the squirrelly coverage this conspiracy theory is getting simply because it's being fed by a guy that was given an official-sounding job by Trump. 

RELATED: Biden can't save us from Trump's Big Lie: Why the fight for democracy has to be a grassroots effort

The right's non-stop abuse of government power to prop up conspiracy theories also serves another function: It distorts the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where the average American can't find the signal in all the noise.

The flood of false accusations of conspiracies and spying and blackmail and election stealing from the right is meant to overwhelm people so that they tune out the news entirely and just assume it's all a bunch of partisan nonsense. That way, the actual crimes and conspiracies engaged in by Trump and his allies get lost in all the chaos. Aided by a media that is addicted to false equivalencies, a lot of people will simply assume both sides are totally corrupt. 

This is how Trump has always hidden his corruption in plain sight: Not by claiming innocence, but by arguing that everyone is guilty and therefore he is being unfairly singled out by the "deep state" or the "elite" or whatever the shadowy conspiracy term is du jour on Fox News.

It's almost certainly not a coincidence that Durham fed the right-wing noise machine these crumbs right as there's been a torrent of evidence released pointing to Trump's very real crimes. Trump's accounting firm just fired him, in response to new documents filed by New York District Attorney Letitia James showing "significant additional evidence" that Trump and his family committed financial fraud. And that's on top of a surge of reports from both media sources and the January 6 committee indicating that Trump was on a document destruction spree while in office, especially with regards to anything that could expose a conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election. 

It's important to note that the relentless conspiracy theories and lies aren't just about covering up Trump's crime with a false "everyone does it" narrative. This sort of thing also feeds the long term goals of authoritarianism, which feeds off public cynicism and malaise. As Trump ally Steve Bannon notoriously said, the idea is to "flood the zone with shit" so that ordinary people get exhausted and give up trying to fight the fascists.

Rational discourse is the enemy of authoritarians because they know they cannot win in a reasonable debate based on facts. So, their strategy is to make rational discourse impossible, by spewing so many lies and conspiracy theories that it's impossible to tell up from down or right from wrong. And unfortunately, the media is once again helping them get away with it. 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Durham Report Hillary Clinton John Durham Spygate