An unlikely protagonist—or, depending on one’s perspective, anti-hero—has emerged from the delirious drama surrounding the charges of Russia’s collusion with Donald Trump’s campaign in its hacking of last year’s presidential election and Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that he was illegally wiretapped on orders of Barack Obama.
It’s British-born controversialist Louise Mensch, founder of the Rupert Murdoch-backed website Heat Street as well as a former Tory member of Parliament, who last November, the night before the balloting, authored a barely noticed story that has suddenly engulfed the political universe.
The 45-year-old Mensch, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her three children and rock band-manager husband, is a former record-company publicist and chick-lit novelist who is better known for spinning outlandish conspiracy theories than for her investigative-reporting chops.
But it was her Nov. 7 piece on Heat Street—which claimed the FBI obtained a secret warrant last October to monitor communications between Trump Tower and two Russian-connected banks—that provoked the president into a Twitter meltdown that continues to reverberate, with White House demands for a congressional investigation and a report that Obama is “livid” with anger at Trump’s accusation.
“I was really thrilled,” Mensch told The Daily Beast on Wednesday about the president’s reaction, “because I thought he was simply admitting that my story was true.”
She added that she normally dismisses Trump’s Twitter feed because she has doubts that the presidential fingers are actually behind it. Not this time.
Mensch, meanwhile, is definitely doing it herself, at a rate of dozens of tweets per day. In her lively, f-bomb-laced feed to her 178,000 followers—much of it attacks on Russia and Russians—she has variously asserted that Vladimir Putin had Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart “murdered,” apparently to create a leadership opening for the allegedly Putin-loving Stephen K. Bannon; that former Breitbart executive chairman Bannon, now the president’s chief strategist, is responsible for the bomb threats phoned in to Jewish community centers (“Bannon team are doing this obviously”); and that then-President Obama should have responded to Russian meddling in U.S. democracy last fall with “precision bombing raids. Bank hacks. Massive cyber war. Russia is a paper bear cub let @Potus show Putin what alpha means.”
Perhaps Mensch’s most elaborate conspiracy theory, fleshed out last month on her “Patribotics” blog, argues that serial sexter Anthony Weiner was cat-fished by “a hardened group of adult hackers” in North Carolina posing as a 15-year-old girl, prompting the criminal investigation that ultimately led FBI Director James Comey to inform congressional Republicans that a cache of Hillary Clinton’s emails had been discovered on Weiner’s laptop. The emails were planted there, Mensch surmised, by a Russian hacker who “alerted Russia’s moles and agents of influence in the FBI field office in New York, who subsequently ‘leaked’ to all and sundry that the emails had been found, and… pressured James Comey into sending the letter [to Congress]…”
And so on and so forth—all personally directed by Putin.
“Louise has become Carrie Mathison on a bad acid trip,” said Republican political consultant Evan Siegfried, referring to the emotionally fraught CIA operative on Showtime’s Homeland series. “Anybody who does not agree with her 100 percent is somehow working against her and in league with Russian interests.”
Siegfried had been friendly with Mensch, whom he occasionally ran into in television green rooms, but recently backed away after hostile Twitter encounters.
“In general, she’s being viewed in many circles as unbelievably toxic—not only to the people she’s trying to connect with, but to the ideas she’s promoting.”
Russia expert Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, publicly scolded Mensch last month for her claim that Putin had Andrew Breitbart whacked.
“This is crazy talk,” Nichols tweeted. “And undermines the important point that Russia has done real things for which it must be held accountable.”
Former Navy counterterrorism and intelligence officer Malcolm Nance, an on-air analyst for MSNBC and author of The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election, is even blunter.
“She’s batshit crazy, OK?” Nance told The Daily Beast. “She is a fruit loop of the highest order.”
Mensch fired back: “I am unfazed by little people snapping at my heels.”
She said Siegfried is too marginal a figure to merit a response, while Nance, she claimed, didn’t even write his latest book. “I like Malcolm Nance’s book, but entire parts of it in reference to hacking—almost all of the book—were not written by him,” Mensch insisted, adding that one of Nance’s collaborators had done the heavy lifting. “He doesn’t know anything about hacking.”
Nance, the author of six books and a cryptologist by training, responded: “Do I have researchers? Yes, I do. Did [cyber researcher] Chris Sampson help me on my book? Yes, he did. But, you know, I actually have to write this stuff, and it actually has to be competent.”
Sampson told The Daily Beast that in a recent exchange of Twitter direct messages, Mensch suggested that he, Sampson, was the real author. “I said, ‘I didn’t write the book.’ …because it’s all Malcolm’s book,” Sampson said. “I would love to take credit for writing an amazing book that I haven’t finished reading myself.”
As for Nichols’s rebuke concerning Mensch’s claim about Putin and Breitbart, she argued that assertions made on Twitter needn’t be established facts.
“I said ‘I believe that’ and it was as a tweet. It wasn’t done as a reporter,” she said. “It’s not a piece of reporting, and I haven’t done any research into it.”
Not surprisingly, Mensch was recently targeted for personal abuse in response to her anti-Russia polemics by RT America, the Kremlin-financed television network. The propaganda outlet presented her public admission of youthful recreational drug use as somehow disqualifying her from the debate.
Yet she, too, has resorted to ad hominem attacks on people with whom she disagrees, notably accusing Naval Reserve intelligence officer and former FBI double agent Naveed Jamali of disseminating “what can only be described as pro-Kremlin propaganda,” she said. Mensch added that she was especially incensed by Jamali’s suggestion on Twitter that the Russians didn’t recruit top-secret leaker Edward Snowden and initially weren’t even sure that he was was on the level.
Mensch’s ally in verbal fisticuffs, defrocked Naval War College professor John Schindler, tweeted about their Twitter fight: “After his epic, Kremlin-sucking exchange w/@Louisemensch, there are only 2 choices left about Jamali: he” a complete fool or Kremlin tool.”
Schindler didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Jamali chronicled his experience of volunteering as a double agent, pretending to Russian intelligence operatives that he was an asset but instead hampering their mission by taking their money for disinformation, in his 2015 memoir, How to Catch a Russian Spy.
“I don’t know what has happened there—something negative, the way he keeps promoting the pro-Russian point of view,” Mensch said about Jamali, whose performance as a talking head she was publicly praising as recently as Feb. 9, when she tweeted: “Thanks Naveed…hope we do a show together one time! Love watching you.”
“As someone who has who has spent the last 12 years in service of his country,” Jamali messaged The Daily Beast, “I was deeply offended that Louise would question my loyalty to this country.”
Mensch, meanwhile, observed that Jamali and Schindler are frequent antagonists. “Ex-national security people can sometimes get into these little fights.”
Mensch’s Nov. 7 Heat Street report, vaguely attributed to “two separate sources with links to the counter-intelligence community,” claimed that the FBI was granted a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to examine emails and other communications between Trump, at least three of his associates, and two financial institutions with Russian connections, SVB Bank and the Alfa Bank.
Mensch’s reporting was the centerpiece of a Breitbart News essay published last Friday and inspired by right-wing radio jock Mark Levin’s rant the night before concerning the Washington establishment’s “police state” tactics and “silent coup” against the 45th president.
The Breitbart piece was widely circulated in the West Wing and drove Trump into a white-hot rage, prompting his infamous pre-dawn Saturday Twitter tantrum that drew heavily on Mensch’s article (without mentioning her name) and alleged that Obama had “wire-tapped” him “in Trump Tower before the victory.” Trump added that his predecessor is a “Bad (or sick) guy.” (Mensch’s story didn’t claim the FISA court had authorized “wiretaps”; that assertion erroneously appeared, however, in Breitbart’s summary of her piece.)
Mensch—who quietly relinquished the top editorship of Heat Street in December to pursue unspecified digital projects at the site’s parent company, News Corp.—has been celebrating her newfound relevance with an appearance on Fox News and stories acknowledging her pivotal role in The Washington Post, Yahoo News, Britain’s Telegraph and, last month before the president’s meltdown, in the Guardian, among other outlets.
But the problem, say intelligence community experts and journalists covering the ongoing Russian hacking and Russian/Trump saga, is that Mensch’s scoop may not be demonstrably accurate.
“Really, I’m just puzzled that even weeks after the fact, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, who have people on the beat, have not been able” to corroborate the existence of a FISA warrant as described by Mensch, said a Washington-based journalist who has been writing about Trump’s Russia connections and spoke on condition of not being named. “Why haven’t the major U.S. media outlets”—which collectively have dozens of presumably well-sourced reporters on the case—“been able to confirm this?”
A second prominent journalist who has been investigating the Trump/Russia connection also expressed skepticism about the validity of Mensch’s revelation.
“It’s exceedingly murky and there are ample grounds to be cautious about all of this,” said this journalist. “My sense is that there is a lot of smoke and probably something there, but it’s not exactly what we think it is, and there’s a lot of overwrought, overheated reporting going on that exceeds the known facts.”
Times legal and national security correspondent Charlie Savage noted this week that Heat Street “does not regularly publish investigative stories about American intelligence or law enforcement operations. To date, reporters for The New York Times with demonstrated sources in that world have been unable to corroborate that the court issued any such order.”
And The Washington Post’s resident fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, pronounced stories about the alleged survelliance “sketchy” and awarded Trump the dreaded “four Pinocchios” for maximum mendacity.
Mensch, however, points to the Guardian and the BBC as having independently confirmed her account of the FISA warrant.
Indeed, the BBC’s Paul Wood wrote: “On 15 October, the US secret intelligence court issued a warrant to investigate two Russian banks. This news was given to me by several sources and corroborated by someone I will identify only as a senior member of the US intelligence community. He would never volunteer anything… but he would confirm or deny what I had heard from other sources.”
Mensch also said a statement at Tuesday’s regular briefing by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in which Spicer didn’t deny that the president has received hard information confirming such a warrant, also bolsters her case.
Naturally enough, Mensch declined to answer questions about her sourcing and, ever the conspiracy theorist, accused this reporter of participating in what she called “a mainstream media disinformation campaign” against her.
“There is a coordinated effort under way to somehow link the FISA warrant back to the CIA,” she said, explaining that another reporter she spoke with seemed to be trying to delegitimize her scoop by connecting it to former CIA agent Evan McMullin, whom Mensch supported for president.
“You’ve asked me an awful lot of questions, and I’ve got a good idea who’s behind this disinformation,” Mensch said mysteriously. “I find it fascinating.”