In his endless quest to find ways to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation of ties between his campaign and Russian crimes meant to influence the election, Donald Trump this week really dug his heels into a conspiracy theory centered around Carter Page, a disquietingly strange former campaign aide of Trump’s who has extensive and unsavory connections to the Kremlin.
For months, Trump and his supporters have been circulating a confusing conspiracy theory about a FISA warrant issued against Page, which is somehow evidence that the Trump campaign was unfairly victimized by a conspiracy between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton . For days now, Trump has been escalating his efforts to seed this conspiracy theory, spraying out angry, incoherent tweets squawking about the “Fake Dirty Dossier,” the “Obama Gang” and the “discredited Mueller Witch Hunt,” all in response to the New York Times publication of Justice Department documents regarding Page. Trump spokespeople have fanned out over cable news to seed the idea that somehow Page getting surveilled somehow means Trump is the victim of a frame-up.
That Trump, who openly and publicly colluded with Vladimir Putin to deny Russia’s criminal hacking during a recent press conference, would want to direct attention away from the real crimes against the Clinton campaign and toward the fake crimes against the Trump campaign is unsurprising. But I must admit I found myself a little surprised to see so much energy going towards this conspiracy theory that’s grown up around the FBI’s surveillance of Page. Not because Trump is lying — which Trump clearly is doing and which he does about everything all the time — but because this particular conspiracy theory is so complex and confusing that it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s supporters are able to follow along.
But in reality, it may be that the confusing nature of the Page conspiracy theory is the point, and that it is actually helping Trump’s efforts to discredit the Mueller investigation.
The real story of Page is clear enough. He worked for the Trump campaign, albeit briefly and at some distance from the candidate. Thanks to evidence collected from multiple sources, the FBI, as clearly stated in its FISA warrant request, came to believes Page was “the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government” and that he had been “collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government.”
In contrast, the Trumpian conspiracy theory is hard to follow. As far as I can tell, Trump seems to be claiming that the FBI, under Obama and in conspiracy with Clinton, falsified information against Page to get this warrant. And the “evidence” for this is the existence of a dossier compiled by private intelligence researcher Christopher Steele, which was part, but certainly not all, of the FBI’s case. Trump claims the Steele dossier is somehow discredited because the Clinton campaign, at one point, was financing Steele’s work. (Initially, he had been funded by a Republican hostile to Trump.) If Page is so innocent, this complex conspiracy to surveil him was supposed to make a difference isn’t really explained, though Trump tries to distract from that question by posturing dramatically in faux outrage over all this.
Odds are the typical Fox News viewer, when asked to explain who Page is and why his story somehow proves Trump is innocent, would have no idea what the hell is supposed to be going on and certainly not why any of this proves Trump’s innocence. But that’s probably the point. The complex nature of the Page conspiracy theory works to shield the claims being made from critical inquiry. By dumping a bunch of hard-to-follow noise about Page and the Russians and FISA warrants and dossiers and Obama and Steele, Trump and is propaganda administrators will scare most people away from even trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
And because people aren’t looking too closely, they won’t be able to see the huge holes in Trump’s story, much less take the time to understand the various lies propping it up. Instead, most people will see this complex knot of accusations and counter-accusations about Trump and the Russians and just decide to believe whoever they want to believe rather than figuring it out.
It’s human nature, when confronted with a complex subject that’s hard to wrap your mind around, for people simply to take on faith what people they already trust or like think about it. Most people don’t understand complex scientific theories, for instance, so they look instead to trusted authorities to assure them that yes, we know how chemotherapy works or why airplanes fly, so you don’t have to know the exact mathematics.
But that same take-it-on-faith attitude can be easily exploited by bad actors. The climate-change “controversy” is a good example. Few people really understand the science behind it, so instead they put their trust in authority figures. Climate-change denialists take advantage of that fact, presenting their “criticisms” of the science as if they were on equal footing with the actual science, knowing that most people are going to decide not based on logical analysis of evidence they hardly understand, but a gut sense of who in the debate they trust more.
So it benefits the Trump administration to make the Russian collusion story, which is already confusing and complex enough, even more confusing. Every opportunity to present more twists and turns and characters into the narrative — such as making an issue out of FBI agent Peter Strzok’s private text messages (which are actually irrelevant) or floating elaborate conspiracy theories about Carter Page — means that many more Americans decide to tune out of the Russia story.
This is likely why White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced, with great fanfare, a list of names of previous officials whose security clearance Trump plans to revoke. The move is being interpreted as petty, childish vengeance on these people for speaking out against Trump, and it’s certainly that. But it also means that the cast of characters of this particular drama got even longer and more confusing. Which means more Americans will give up trying to follow the story, and instead put their faith in authority figures to handle that for them.
For most Republicans, as bizarre as this may seem, that means choosing to put their faith in Donald Trump, rather than trying to figure out what the hell is really going on.