On Wednesday, right-wing social media exploded with the news that Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was reportedly leading an effort to block the issuing of subpoenas to former FBI Director James Comey and former CIA Director John Brennan as part of an investigation into the origins of special counsel Robert Muller’s probe into Russian contacts with Donald Trump’s campaign.
The problem is, none of that is true.
The whole brouhaha started with Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, telling right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt that Republicans on the committee were “concerned about how this looks politically” and blocking him from issuing those subpoenas. Johnson refused to name those Republicans.
I’ve asked my booking producer to invite @SenRonJohnson to come back tomorrow as this was not a “misunderstanding” but a transparent effort to blame his colleagues. It would be a service to them to explain to audience what the real story is.. https://t.co/C9T3tLMkOn https://t.co/yx5vhkNwTd— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) August 12, 2020
Rather than look skeptically on Johnson's claims, the right-wing conspiracy website Gateway Pundit published a breathless story quoting an unnamed Senate source who said Romney was behind the obstruction.
“Romney was for impeachment. He has been against Trump every step of the way. Now he is obstructing going after the leakers and liars who went after Trump,” said the unnamed source.
Politico's Kyle Cheney reported that a committee spokesperson told him that no one is blocking any subpoenas, but "there's just a desire to exhaust all option to get them to testify voluntarily."
UPDATE: Johnson's committee now says no one is blocking any subpoenas for Comey/Brennan, rather there's just a desire to exhaust all options to get them to testify voluntarily.— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) August 12, 2020
Aides say the exchange with @hughhewitt was a misunderstanding. https://t.co/aRUdvbVVfD
To call Gateway Pundit an untrustworthy news source would be an understatement. The website is overtly pro-Trump in their “reporting” and often publishes hoaxes and falsehoods. Newsweek described the site as a “fake news website,” and CNN said it is a “website prone to peddling conspiracy theories.”
This current Romney story looks to be more of the same claptrap.
A spokesperson for Johnson’s committee told Politico’s Kyle Cheney that no one is blocking subpoenas and said the comments to Hewitt was a misunderstanding.
Additionally, the committee voted to give Johnson unilateral authority to issue subpoenas to Brennan, Comey, and a whole host of other Obama-era officials two months ago. Sen. Romney was one of the Republicans who voted in favor of giving Johnson that authority.
Nevertheless, Gateway Pundit went ahead with their thinly sourced smear against Romney, facts be damned. The "story" was picked up by a raft of right-wing media figures, including Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton who called the story evidence of a “coup.”
Rather than admit their mistake, the Gateway Pundit doubled down on the falsehood on Thursday, claiming a second source “close to the Mueller investigation” reached out to them claiming that Romney was covering up for billionaire Paul Singer. They also speculated, without a shred of evidence, that the committee may have made an agreement to not subpoena “high profile” individuals without unanimous consent from the committee, and that Johnson accidentally let that detail slip in his conversation with Hewitt.
A staffer in Romney’s office tells UtahPolicy.com that Gateway Pundit has not reached out to them for comment, something any competent journalist does reflexively when they are working on a story. They also added any thought that there was some sort of agreement that would prevent Johnson from issuing the subpoenas is patently false, as the authorization for the subpoenas “was already granted.”
Now the story is circulating in some of the “Trumpier” right-wing social media circles in Utah, where Romney is a bete noire and often referred to as a “traitor,” “carpetbagger” or “RINO (Republican in Name Only),” or even the most hated of beings, a Democrat because of his sometimes criticism of President Trump.
These groups often fantasize about recalling or impeaching Romney (which would be unconstitutional) or voting him out of office (they won’t get a chance until 2024).
This kind of story is like catnip to Trump supporters, who are already inclined to view Romney suspiciously since he does not fall in line behind the President on every issue because it fits their preferred narrative and confirms their biases.
The clearest sign that any conspiracy is working is the complete lack of evidence in support.