The woman behind the story behind the Trump Twitter storm

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·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Louise Mensch takes part in a debate at the Cambridge Union in 2015. (Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images)
Louise Mensch takes part in a debate at the Cambridge Union in 2015. (Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images)

Late last month, a former British Member of Parliament named Louise Mensch took to her favorite medium, Twitter, to make her latest bombshell allegation: “I absolutely believe that Andrew Breitbart was murdered by Putin,” Mensch wrote in a Feb. 24 tweet about the 2012 death of the conservative founder of Breitbart.com (who, according to a coroner’s report, died near his house in Los Angeles from heart failure with no sign of foul play).

Until recently, Mensch’s conspiracy-minded tweets about dark Russian and American plots didn’t get much attention. But all that changed after President Trump charged in his own Saturday morning Twitter storm that President Barack Obama had wiretapped his phone, an explosive allegation that appears to trace back to a four-month old story by Mensch in Heat Street, a libertarian-oriented website site owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

On Nov. 7, the day before the presidential election, Mensch wrote that the FBI had obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor the “activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia.” No American news organization has corroborated the account, but the day after Trump’s Saturday tweets, Heat Street was quick to take credit as Trump’s source —even if the goal of her reporting (to expose the president’s purported ties to the Kremlin) was radically different from what the chief executive had in mind.

“I’m extremely proud of my breaking that story,” Mensch, 45, said in an interview with Yahoo News. “What I put into play there is that there was a FISA warrant, and that the FBI clearly considered Donald Trump an agent of influence of a foreign power.”

The new spotlight on Mensch injects another colorful, if improbable, character into the Trump-Russia saga — a high-octane Oxford-educated former Tory politician turned journalist who has authored a string of “chick lit” novels for young women and is married to the manager of the rock bands Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“Louise is a fireball,” said Rick Wilson, a chief organizer of the Republican Party’s “Never Trump” movement, who worked closely with her during the presidential campaign of the conservative independent candidate Evan McMullin. “She will run down stuff that other people have dismissed and track down sources that others won’t. She’s absolutely a bulldog on this stuff. God love her.”

But Mensch’s prominence has raised multiple questions in the journalistic community, starting with: How could Mensch, who currently lives in New York and works as a vice president for creative and strategy for News Corp, have possibly penetrated the supersecret world of FISA counterintelligence warrants, when no American reporter has been able to? And, perhaps more basically, should her vaguely sourced account be believed?

As New York Times legal affairs correspondent Charlie Savage wrote Monday, “there are reasons to be skeptical.” Without mentioning Mensch by name, he noted 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.”

Still, the line connecting Mensch’s reporting and Trump’s tweets, while somewhat attenuated, is unmistakable. A Breitbart news story and timeline published last Friday, which was reportedly widely circulated by White House officials and given to the president, cites some of the same details that first appeared under Mensch’s byline. This includes her claim that the FBI had made an earlier request in June to conduct surveillance on Trump associates that was turned down by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that must approve such warrants.

Mensch, for her part, said, “I stand by every word of my reporting.” But, she repeatedly emphasized, her own account of the FISA warrant — for which she cited two anonymous sources “with links to the counterintelligence community” — is more limited than the version of events tweeted by the president.

Unlike Trump, Mensch made no mention of Obama playing a direct role in the FISA warrant. She also made no mention of any wiretaps targeting Trump Tower — a claim that Mensch suggested is implausible on its face, given that, as the Republican presidential candidate at the time, Trump’s office would have been protected by the Secret Service.

Mensch is trying to correct the record on what she did and did not write: “There seems to be a coordinated effort to rubbish my reporting by putting [in] stuff that’s not there,” she said. While she reported the existence of a FISA warrant, “I could not possibly have had any idea what the FBI would do with the warrant. … I don’t sensationally report. I don’t report things I don’t know to be true.”

Mensch refuses to say whether her two sources are current or former members of the “counterintelligence community” or whether they are American or foreign. She does note that, while no U.S. news organization has independently confirmed her account, two other British media organizations, the Guardian and the BBC, have followed up with their own stories about the supposed warrant.

Given that it was a former British MI-6 spy, Christopher Steele, who compiled the explosive, mostly uncorroborated dossier on the connections between Trump and Russian officials, there has been speculation about the role of the British intelligence community in fueling the Russia scandal.

One reason for skepticism, her critics charge, is Mensch’s penchant for conspiracy theories. One recent blog posting, entitled “The Carolina Conspiracy, Or How Vladimir Putin Catifished a US Election With the Collusion of Team Trump,” suggested that Kremlin trolls had deployed a criminal hacker to pose as a teenage North Carolina girl “sexting” with former New York congressman Anthony Weiner — prompting the FBI investigation that ultimately led FBI Director James Comey to reopen the Clinton email investigation on the eve of the November election.

Mensch said she has a “mountain of evidence” to support her claims and will be publishing more on the subject shortly. It will show, she says, that a “fake crime” was created so that “corrupt FBI agents could seize Weiner’s laptop,” which he shared with his wife, Huma Abedin, Clinton’s closest aide.

Then there is Mensch’s tweet that Putin had Andrew Breitbart assassinated. The purported purpose of the murder, she has suggested, was to allow Steve Bannon to take over the alt-right website in order to better serve the Kremlin’s interests. Mensch cites no source at all for the claim, but made a sharp distinction between her tweets on the subject — which were merely her opinion, she says, and her reported story on the FISA warrant.

All this might lead to some, in a final bit of irony, to compare the conspiracy-minded tweeting of Mensch, an arch Trump critic, with the conspiracy-minded tweets of the president himself.

It’s a parallel that Mensch, wittingly or not, may only reinforce. “It’s just something I believe,” she said, when asked about her theory that Putin murdered Breitbart. “I don’t really believe in coincidences.”

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