Trump administration officials and allies were out in force this week promoting the story that Susan Rice, national security adviser in the Obama administration, requested the names of Americans who were caught up in surveillance of Russian officials during last year’s presidential campaign and transition. The most recent, and enthusiastic, endorsement came from Donald Trump, Jr., who proposes the writer who broke the story for a Pulitzer Prize.
Trump. Jr was praising a story published over the weekend by Mike Cernovich, a self-described “free speech activist” and writer, claiming that Rice was behind the request to “unmask” incoming Trump officials whose communications were picked up by intelligence agencies. The names of Americans that appear in transcripts of intercepted communications are routinely disguised, or “masked,” but officials can request to see them for law enforcement or national security reasons. There is no implication that Rice broke the law by her request, but leaking the information to the media, or using it for political purposes, could be ethically (or legally) problematic.
“I leaked nothing to nobody,” said Rice in a Tuesday afternoon interview about the allegations with MSNBC. “Never have, never would.”
Before the Rice story broke, Cernovich was best known as a leading promoter of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which claimed that a Washington, D.C., pizza establishment was the front for a pedophilia ring involving former Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. The hysteria over Pizzagate led to a North Carolina man named Edgar M. Welch driving to Comet Ping Pong in Washington and firing shots from an AR-15 inside the restaurant. Welch told the New York Times that he “just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way.”
Trump Jr. is not the first member of the White House to promote Cernovich’s work. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn promoted Cernovich’s book, “The Gorilla Mindset,” on Twitter in October. When Cernovich was interviewed as part of a “60 Minutes” segment on fake news last month, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway called it a “ratings bonanza” and urged everyone to watch.
Cernovich, who describes himself as an author, journalist and documentarian, is one of the most popular alt-right personalities online. In addition to his “60 Minutes” appearance, he was the subject of an October New Yorker profile that laid out his path to notoriety.
“I use trolling tactics to build my brand,” Cernovich told the New Yorker.
Cernovich’s “trolling” has manifested itself in a variety of ways. He was an early figure in Gamergate, which targeted feminists in the video-game industry. He has likened diversity to “white genocide,” stated that date rape isn’t a real thing and said the Black Lives Matter movement “regularly slaughters the innocent.”
Cernovich is not the only conspiracy theorist with a connection to the White House. Then-candidate Donald Trump did a 30-minute interview with Alex Jones’ InfoWars site in December 2015, calling Jones’ reputation “amazing.” Jones has touted a number of unsubstantiated theories, including that 9/11 was an inside job, that chemicals in juice boxes are turning children gay and that a number of politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are actually demons.
Last month Jones apologized for the InfoWars role in promoting Pizzagate. Welch, the gunman who investigated Pizzagate on his own, said he had listened to Jones.
Trump Jr.’s promotion of Cernovich for a Pulitzer faces at least one obstacle: Cernovich himself has admitted that the actual reporting was done by two mainstream journalists, Eli Lake of Bloomberg News and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times. Cernovich said he was tipped off by disgruntled colleagues in the two newsrooms, who suspected the publications were sitting on a story that could have embarrassed the Obama administration.
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