LONDON—The source of President Trump’s false claim that British intelligence agents spied on his presidential campaign says there is a widespread conspiracy to frame him as a “conspiracy nut.”
Trump quoted former CIA analyst Larry C. Johnson on Wednesday after Johnson appeared on the right-wing One America News Network to repeat incendiary and totally unproven claims that America’s closest intelligence ally was used by President Obama to surveil his successor during the 2016 campaign.
Johnson’s claims first hit the mainstream in 2017, when Judge Andrew Napolitano repeated his theory on Fox & Friends. Fox had taken a claim from Johnson—who says he was banned from appearing on Fox News himself—that was first shared on an internet forum and Russia’s RT network and pushed it into the mainstream.
By the end of the week, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer had repeated the claims from the White House podium and a full-scale diplomatic incident was underway.
GCHQ (Britain’s equivalent to the NSA) issued a denial of unprecedented force. Britain’s intel agencies hardly ever issue public statements, certainly not ones that slapdown the White House. “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” the agency said.
Fox News issued a clarification that their reporting did not support the allegation, and Napolitano was briefly suspended from the air. After heavy pushback from London, Trump tried to distance himself from the claims—but he later Tweeted that Obama had tapped his phone.
On Wednesday, he tweeted:
GCHQ declined to respond this time, citing previous efforts to shut down the theory that the Obama Administration had asked Britain to spy on the Trump campaign in order to get around U.S. laws on wiretapping American citizens.
A government minister lamented to The Daily Beast: “If only the U.K. was that organized…”
It’s hard to say how much Trump would have remembered from the previous diplomatic blow-up, but he was now pushing a story deemed too extreme for Fox News.
Johnson told The Daily Beast that Fox News was part of the cover-up.
He claimed that he had been “fired” by former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes after speaking out against the war in Iraq, and that the network only disavowed the British spy story because Rupert Murdoch wanted to suck up to the British government.
Asked why that would have been Fox News’s priority, Johnson told The Daily Beast; “Dude, really sorry but that question is too stupid to even answer … If you recall the Murdochs were involved with negotiations with trying to buy some media assets in the U.K.”
Johnson refused to divulge any information on the source of his insight into transatlantic espionage beyond citing “friends in the intel community,” who he says told him that the Brits focused on electronic intercepts but also used MI6 assets to approach members of the Trump campaign.
“I'm not going to go any farther than that. I've been fucking burned by too many journalists already,” he said. “I mean you know I fully expect—don't take this personal—but I fully expect you to cast this as I'm some nut or I'm some extreme fringe guy.”
Johnson encounters no such problems on RT and OAN.
He said RT, which is funded by the Russian government, was one of the only reliable news outlets. “The Western media reminds me of Pravda during the height of the Cold War,” he said.
It’s not just the mainstream media that Johnson believes are out to get him. He said right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh had falsely accused him of pushing the Obama birther conspiracy and said that left-wing media monitoring site Media Matters had constructed an elaborate hoax with Sidney Blumenthal in order to frame him for pushing the false rumor that there was a video that showed Michelle Obama dismissing white people as “whitey.” “I’m not commenting on conspiracy theories,” Blumenthal told The Daily Beast.
Trump seizing on the GCHQ theory is not the first time he’s infuriated the British with his willingness to amplify stories from the fringes of the internet. In 2017, the British prime minister, Theresa May, directly criticized Trump for sharing a fake video purporting to show violent Muslims that had been posted by the far-right street organization Britain First. “It is wrong for the president to have done this,” she said.
Trump’s latest controversial tweet came just 24-hours after it was announced that the Queen would host the president for a State visit to Britain in June.
British politicians from across the political spectrum have called for the visit to be cancelled.
“The special relationship between the U.K. and USA is a cornerstone of our defence and the bonds of friendship between our two countries are unshakeable,” Labour lawmaker Wes Streeting told The Daily Beast. “President Trump, however, has demonstrated time and again that he is no friend of the U.K - from his attacks on the Mayor of London following a terrorist attack on our city through to his sharing of far right propaganda. He does not deserve the honour of a state visit.”