For the past few days, a wide range of conservative media outlets have been losing their stuff over the apparent revelations of an interview that aired nearly a month ago with a former Obama official named Evelyn Farkas. A clip of the interview titled “Obama Aide Evelyn Farkas Squeals Live On MSNBC: 'I Helped Spy On Trump For Obama'(VIDEO)!!!” has been viewed on YouTube more than 300,000 times. During Friday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer referenced Farkas by name: “I think that the revelations of Evelyn Farkas —who played a senior role in the Obama administration —going on the record to talk about how they politically used classified information is troubling.” Wait, though: Who the hell is Eveyln Farkas?
Let’s start from the beginning. Early this month, the New York Times published a story about Obama administration officials working to preserve and disseminate intelligence about Russian efforts to influence November’s election across the government before President Obama left office. According to the article, officials were concerned that some of that intelligence, including intercepted communications from Russians detailing contacts with people in Trump’s circle and information on Russian meetings with Trump associates, would be “covered up or destroyed” by the Trump administration.
The day after the story was published, MSNBC analyst and former Obama Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine, Evelyn Farkas appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and was asked about the article. Farkas, who left the Obama administration in 2015, told Mika Brzezinski that she had encouraged former colleagues still working in the administration and “people on the Hill” to take part in the effort to preserve intelligence and intelligence sources:
I was urging my former colleagues and frankly speaking the people on the Hill—it was more actually aimed at telling the Hill people—get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration. Because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior people who left. So it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy that the Trump folks—if they found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff, dealing with Russians—that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence.
So I became very worried because not enough was coming out into the open and I knew that there was more. We have very good intelligence on Russia. So then I had talked to some of my former colleagues and I knew that they were also trying to help get information to the Hill.
Re-read that transcript. The following is the description of Farkas’ comments given, weeks after the interview, this Wednesday by Sean Hannity on his radio show:
“If they found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff, dealing with Russians, they would try to compromise sources and methods [sic].” What are the three big words of the day that I just told you about—well, four big words? Surveillance. Unmasking. Intelligence leaks. So she’s acknowledging that what Donald Trump tweeted out was correct! So she’s acknowledging there’s surveillance. Again, I go back, “If they knew how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff dealing with Russians [sic]” — so she’s acknowledging surveillance, so that means Trump’s right. Check that off in the box.
But at no point in Farkas’ comments does she say or suggest that Donald Trump was being directly surveilled—or wiretapped, as Trump has claimed—by the Obama administration. She was, plainly, discussing what the Times’ article was about: the surveillance of Russians who had contacts with Trump’s team—which we have known about for some time—and what would happen to the intelligence gathered. Hannity knows this. For weeks, he has struggled to sculpt new developments in the scandal that’s emerged over Trump’s still unsubstantiated claims into evidence that Trump really had been surveilled.
Take a post published at his site, Hannity.com, on Mar. 6, not long after Trump tweeted his allegations about being wiretapped. “New York Times Confirmed Wiretaps Used Against Trump Aides...ON ITS OWN FRONT PAGE!” the headline screams. But that Times article describes an investigation of ties between Russian officials and Trump’s associates that, according to the Times, may not even have been related to the election or Trump himself. Nevertheless, the inauguration article was cited by Hannity, other conservative outlets, and Trump himself as support for Trump’s claim that Obama, mentioned nowhere in the report, had wiretapped Trump’s phones at Trump Tower prior to the election. This was basically the same situation as with Farkas’ comments and the Times’ article from earlier this month. The comments do nothing whatsoever to confirm direct surveillance against Trump—instead describing what some administration officials intended to do with intelligence gathered from Russians—but Hannity and others in conservative media are claiming it proves Trump’s claims anyway.
Hannity discussed Farkas on his Fox News show Thursday night flanked by a graphic he’s deployed before reading “Surveillance Confirmed.” Farkas was discussed on conservative talk radio host Mark Levin’s show the same day she was brought up by Hannity. Now the Trump administration itself is cautiously dipping its toes into the fray.
When Hugh Hewitt asked White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about Farkas on Thursday, Priebus said that he had discussed her comments with Press Secretary Sean Spicer while refraining from directly suggesting that Farkas had substantiated Trump. “I don’t want to add too much into it right now until I have an opportunity to sort of dig into it and figure out the scope of such a statement,” he said. But he did call her comments “incredible” and implied that Farkas really might have inadvertently revealed something nefarious. “A personal reaction,” he said, “is it’s almost—it’s so cavalier and unbelievable that I just wonder whether this person knows what the heck she’s talking about.”
The tack on Farkas’ comments the Trump administration now seems willing to take is that she apparently confessed to at least involvement in an effort to illegally leak classified information. This is also untrue—the effort Farkas and the Times described involved disseminating intelligence within the government to those properly cleared to access it and Farkas, out of government by then, said only that she had encouraged former colleagues to participate. That didn’t stop Sean Spicer from implying that Farkas and others had broken the law to hurt Trump during Thursday’s press briefing:
If you look at Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense that is out there, Evelyn Farkas, she made it clear that it was their goal to spread this information around, that they went around and did this. They have admitted on the record that this was their goal—to leak stuff. And they literally—she said on the record 'Trump’s team.' There are serious questions out there about what happened and why and who did it.
During his Friday press briefing, Spicer repeated these allegations and dug deeper into the notion that Farkas had revealed surveillance of Trump. “Day by day, more and more," he said, "we're seeing the substance of what we've been talking about continues to move exactly in the direction that the president spoke about in terms of surveillance that occurred.”
In fact, each passing day brings conservative media and the Trump administration further and further away from proof that matches the letter of the president’s specific claims:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
Farkas, for her part, has returned to television to defend herself. During an appearance on MSNBC Thursday, she decided to fight back with her own conspiracy theory. “When people like me are speaking up on behalf of process,” she said, "people spin it to suit their needs. It may be that the Russians are behind even such fake news today.” There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the Russians are behind Farkasgate—there’s nothing to see here but a conservative press operating as shamelessly and mendaciously as it always has.