Donald Trump’s allies in Congress and the pro-Trump media are scrambling to find a counter-narrative to the Ukraine impeachment investigation that can shore up Republican support, even crashing into closed hearings in some kind of misguided protest.
In theory, finding allegations to throw back at Democrats shouldn’t be that hard for Trump’s media allies. They already have the playbook and pundits left over from the response to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. But this time around, the narrative keeps getting scrambled—new damning witness testimony comes out of another hearing, or chief of staff Mick Mulvaney badly botches a press conference.
Now, with few appealing options, they’ve latched onto their the most ridiculous claim yet: portraying a mundane social media search tool as a deep-state conspiracy theory.
For the past week, Trump ally and Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton and a chorus of conservative media voices have been fuming over a supposed “enemies list” compiled by the State Department and filled with right-wing Twitter characters. But it turns out that the supposed list, if it existed at all, was just a run-of-the-mill social media search on widely available web analytics tool CrowdTangle.
Last week, Fitton started claiming that he had reason to believe that former United States ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch had “unlawfully monitored” a host of pro-Trump media personalities. Fitton claimed Yovanovitch had requested monitoring of an “enemies list” through “social media and other means,” only to be rebuffed because her request was “illegal.”
Fitton cryptically said, on Twitter and via press releases, that his group had enough information to “investigate” the idea that Yovanovitch, who was pushed out her job under alleged pressure from Rudolph Giuliani, demanded the illicit surveillance of a list of Trumpworld luminaries.
“They had an enemy’s list in the Ukrainian embassy—our embassy!” Fitton said. “Paid for with your tax dollars, in potential violation of the law.”
The list supposedly included Donald Trump Jr., Pizzagate promoter Jack Posobiec, right-wing character Dan Bongino, and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka—all, notably, people with big enough social media followings to boost Fitton’s story.
Curiously, Fitton was incredibly vague about the origins of his information. In one post, Judicial Watch says Yovanovitch “reportedly” created the list, only to cite another, nearly identical Judicial Watch post as its proof. Fitton’s group didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The allegation of illegal surveillance echoes Trump’s long disproven claim that Trump Tower was unlawfully wiretapped by the Obama administration. This time, though, the allegations were even more obscure. Fitton’s description of the supposed “enemies list” sounded a lot like a basic search of public social media posts, something that even Posobiec had to acknowledge in an appearance for his employer, pro-Trump cable channel One America News.
“We’re not sure exactly yet what exactly the scope of this monitoring was, whether it was simply following on-air reports and tweets, or whether it included something further with government resources,” Posobiec said.
“It’s essentially like Big Brother watching you!” the One America News host interviewing him replied.
Fitton’s bogus story faltered early for a couple other reasons, too. He conceded early that Yovanovitch’s own name was on the list, suggesting that it could hardly be a list of Yovanovitch’s personal enemies. Another person on the alleged monitoring list is Michael McFaul—an Obama era ambassador to Russia, and an outspoken Trump critic. Asked by Fox News host Laura Ingraham why a supposed political enemies list would include McFaul, Fitton just shrugged.
“Who knows?” Fitton said. “Maybe he was commenting on what was going on.”
Despite the near-total lack of information about the supposed list, the claim shot through conservative media, earning mentions on Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show and Fox News shows hosted by Tucker Carlson and Ingraham. At an anti-impeachment rally outside Congress last Thursday, Gorka claimed the mystery surveillance list was another deep-state scheme.
“They will use every dirty trick in the book,” Gorka said. “We’ve just found this week, thanks to Judicial Watch, that Obama’s ambassador to the Ukraine was monitoring key conservatives illegally, me included, and Don Jr.”
As it turns out, though, Fitton is getting all worked up over absolutely nothing. On Wednesday afternoon, Fitton revealed that the “enemies list” was just a social media search of public posts on CrowdTangle—a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool used by a variety of institutions, including media outlets.
It’s still not clear even if the purported list even exists—Fitton hasn’t offered any proof beyond anonymous quotes, and the State Department didn’t respond to requests for comment. The State Department has said publicly before that it uses CrowdTangle to follow discussion of news topics, meaning that Fitton, despite all the hype in pro-Trump media, hadn’t exactly revealed a secret surveillance tool.