For years it has been the subject of countless Fox News segments, talk radio rants, as well as viral right-wing tweets and Facebook posts. It led to hearings in Congress, investigations by the Justice Department and investigations into that investigation. President Trump called it "the greatest political crime in our country's history" and suggested that its perpetrators deserve 50 years in prison.
Now, weeks before the election, "Spygate" – a labyrinthine conspiracy theory that includes unsubstantiated allegations of a clandestine democratic conspiracy to spy on Mr. Trump's 2016 campaign – appears to be losing steam.
The theory is still receiving a lot of attention in the right media sector. But Mr. Trump's drive to make Spygate a major mainstream topic in this year's campaign may fall short. Data from NewsWhip, a company that tracks social media performance, shows stories of Spygate and two related keywords – "Obamagate" and "Unmask / Unmask / Unmask" – had 1.5 million interactions on and from Facebook in the last month Influential Twitter accounts received about 20 million interactions in May.
Part of Spygate's fizz could be related to the fact that none of Mr. Trump's political enemies were charged with crimes three years later. Last year, an eagerly awaited report from the Justice Department's Inspector General found no evidence of a politicized conspiracy to spy on the Trump campaign – disgruntled believers who thought the report would justify their belief in a criminal conspiracy against the president.
And that fall, Spygate believers were further injured when a Justice Department investigation into one of their key issues – whether Obama-era officials acted inappropriately by "exposing" certain individuals named in intelligence documents – found nothing. to hand over.
Few right-wing narratives have been as persistent as Spygate, which over time has morphed into some kind of overall theory encompassing various allegations of democratic misconduct. Fox News presenters, including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, and Republicans in Congress, including California Representative Devin Nunes and South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy. But no one has taken the theory as well as Mr. Trump, who has come back to it frequently to divert attention from his own problems, be it the Mueller investigation or his administration's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the election nears, it's worth looking back at the development of Spygate, both because it shows partisan misinformation bubbling through the right-wing media ecosystem and, ultimately, because it shows how obsessed Mr. Trump is with a confusing one The following narrative may have failed as a campaign strategy.
Here is a (very) shortened version of the main waypoints in Spygate.
March 2017: Right-wing blogs and the media debated theories they called "DeepStateGate" or "Obamagate," an indication of false claims that President Obama was bugging Mr. Trump's phone.
May 2018: Mr. Trump took advantage of the news that an F.B.I. The source was sent to meet with members of his campaign staff and named it "Spygate". He said it could be "one of the biggest political scandals in history". Pro-Trump media outlets ran with the unsubstantiated claims. Senior Republicans initially tried to distance themselves from the theory, although many would later embrace it.
April 2019: Spygate gained momentum when Attorney General William P. Barr testified to Congress that he believed Mr. Trump's 2016 campaign "was espionage" in what appeared to contradict earlier statements by the Justice Department.
December 2019: Michael Horowitz, Inspector General of the Ministry of Justice, released a long-awaited report detailing his findings on the origins and conduct of the F.B.I. Mr. Trump's media allies spent weeks exaggerating the report. (Sean Hannity predicted that this would "shock the conscience".) Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory also clung to the Horowitz report, predicting that it would fuel charges and mass arrests of the president's enemies.
But the Horowitz report didn't deliver a knockout punch. It showed bugs and bugs in some F.B.I. Measures, but found no evidence of political bias in the F.B.I. and rejected Mr Trump's suggestion that there was an organized democratic conspiracy against him.
May 2020: When the country was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, two developments brought Spygate (which has since been renamed "Obamagate") back onto the national stage. First, the Justice Department closed its criminal case against former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, a key figure in Spygate who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his talks with a Russian diplomat.
Then, days later, a list of Obama administration officials who may have tried to "expose" Mr. Flynn was released and published by Richard Grenell, acting director of national intelligence. (Intelligence "unmasking" refers to a process by which officials can attempt to divulge the identity of individuals referred to anonymously in intelligence documents. Unmasking is common and such requests are made thousands of times a year.) The list included the former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who fueled Mr. Trump's attempt to paint himself as a victim of a partisan conspiracy.
In many ways, this was the next step Spygate had taken to escape the far-right media ecosystem. Fox News devoted hours to theory, which some days received more airtime than the coronavirus. Mainstream news organizations tried to understand the theory, and Mr. Trump himself seemed obsessed with it, though he often struggled to describe what the conspiracy actually was. In a spate of more than 100 tweets sent on May 10, Mother's Day, Mr. Trump raged over Obamagate and reiterated many of the unmasked allegations of misconduct in the Obama era, Mr. Flynn and the Russia investigation.
By this point, many Trump supporters had their hopes placed on two government reports that they hoped would soon blow the entire scandal wide open.
The first was a full investigation, led by John Durham, the United States attorney from Connecticut, who was tapped by Mr. Barr to determine the origins of the F.B.I.'s Russia probe. to investigate.
The second was a smaller part of the Durham Inquiry, led by John Bash, a US attorney appointed by Mr. Barr to investigate whether Obama-era officials wrongly "exposed" Mr. Flynn and others .
October 2020: Spygate / Obamagate continued to unravel less than a month before the election. Mr Barr has advised the Republican legislature that Mr Durham's report is unlikely to arrive before the election. And the debunking investigation led by Mr Bash, which many Spygate aficionados believed would lead to indictments and arrests of top Democrats, instead ended without a finding of irregularities or material misconduct.
For Mr Trump, however, hope remains forever. He has continued his crusade, likening Spygate to a "treasonous act" designed to expel Mr. Biden from the presidency.