Why the White House press secretary kept talking about an obscure Obama official.
Depending on where you get your news, the name "Evelyn Farkas" might hold particular meaning for you. The former Obama administration official has found herself at the center of a new conservative conspiracy theory circulating around the internet—one that White House press secretary and walking bummer Sean Spicer helped propagate Friday at the daily press briefing.
Here's the deal with Farkas: She served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine from 2012 until October 2015. Fast-forward to March of this year, when the New York Times published an article about how Obama staffers had spread information about Russian interference in the 2016 election around the government—though they didn't leak anything—in order to make it easier to investigate. The day after the article dropped, Farkas went on MSNBC to discuss it. Here's some of what Farkas told to host Mika Brzezinski:
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 that left.
She wasn't one of the officials discussed in the Times piece—she couldn't have been, since she wasn't part of the White House. She was just saying she encouraged her old buddies to keep that information about Russian hacking intact.
Two days after that interview Trump claimed on Twitter that Obama had wiretapped him. Why does that matter? Well, after conservative media spread Farkas's comments in late March, outlets like FOX News began reporting on the weeks-old interview as proof that the Obama administration had been spying on Trump's campaign and transition team. Which brings us to Friday's press briefing, where Spicer regurgitated the Farkas narrative. He told reporters:
The substance—the unmasking and leaks—is what we should all be concerned about. It affects all Americans, our liberties, our freedom, our civil liberties. Let's talk about some of the substance. On March 2, the day before the president's tweet, comments from a senior administration official foreign policy expert Dr. Evelyn Farkas, together with previous reports that have been out, raised serious concerns on whether or not there's been an organized and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive information for political purposes. She admitted this on television by saying, "I was urging my former colleagues, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill, I was telling people on the Hill, 'Get as much information as you can. Get as much intelligence as you can.' I had a fear that they were essentially watching the Trump staff and he was worried about the Trump administration." That's what's out there, and I know NBC News has just reported something very similar… Dr. Farkas's admission alone is devastating.
This is a rather disingenuous reading of Farkas's statement. It implies that Farkas was encouraging people to leak, rather than just preserve information, and ignores that Farkas stopped working for the administration in 2015. As she emphasized in an interview with the conservative Daily Caller on Thursday, "I had no intelligence whatsoever, I wasn't in government anymore and didn't have access to any."
Spicer isn't the only Trump administration official to mention Farkas. On Thursday, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that Farkas's statement was "incredible," saying if "that has anything to do with the issues in regard to surveillance of Trump transition team members is something that we need to figure out this morning and throughout the day."
It seems pretty figured out.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.