WASHINGTON — The first version of the conspiracy theory was hatched on Twitter last Friday, Jan. 10.
“Don’t rule out that the reason Pelosi hasn’t sent impeachment to the Senate is to hurt Warren and Sanders, and to help Biden,” Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, tapped out on his iPad. “By timing the trial so it takes place during the Iowa lead-up, she has leverage over the liberals.”
Mr. Fleischer’s message was retweeted 1,400 times.
Seven days later, Mr. Fleischer’s theory that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was attempting to influence the Democratic primary — for which there is no evidence — was being promulgated by President Trump.
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“They are rigging the election again against Bernie Sanders, just like last time, only even more obviously,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday, claiming his Senate trial was designed to keep Mr. Sanders, the Vermont senator, grounded in Washington instead of campaigning in Des Moines ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses.
“Crazy Nancy thereby gives the strong edge to Sleepy Joe Biden, and Bernie is shut out again,” the president added.
An idea that caught fire on Twitter and became grist for Mr. Trump demonstrates how the same echo chamber of right-wing media that boosted him in 2016 is exerting its power again just before the first primary votes are cast in 2020.
There was nothing new in terms of the process that got the idea in front of Mr. Trump. But the evolution from online conspiracy theory to Fox News fodder to presidential talking point demonstrated how a world of conservative influencers, Republican lawmakers and online media outlets can drive disinformation through repetition and amplification.
Two days after Mr. Fleischer’s tweet, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, appeared on Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox News and repeated it. “This is the dirty little secret nobody is talking about: why the Speaker held these papers,” Mr. McCarthy said on Sunday. “This benefits Joe Biden. This harms Senator Sanders, who is in first place and could become their nominee.”
In fact, Mr. Sanders is not the national front-runner for the nomination and never has been, although he had a narrow lead in a recent poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers. But Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign in recent weeks has been seeking to elevate Mr. Sanders, viewing the self-described democratic socialist as the president’s ideal Democratic opponent in November.
The Trump camp, in turn, is worried about Mr. Biden’s competitiveness against the president in Midwestern battleground states, and would like to do anything possible to trip up the moderate former vice president in his tight primary race against the liberal Mr. Sanders.
Mr. McCarthy has continued to repeat the theory and profess support for Mr. Sanders, repeating the talking points in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. His television commentary was then written up by Breitbart News, the right-wing news and opinion site.
On Thursday, The Federalist, a conservative website, ran an article with the headline: “Is Impeachment Delay How Democrats Are Rigging Iowa Against Bernie Again?” It said Ms. Pelosi’s decision to delay impeachment “provokes the question whether she is deliberately helping Joe Biden.”
One day later, the message had reached the White House, where Mr. Trump, a frequent purveyor of conspiracy theories, presented the idea as a fact.
“It’s easy to see why Bernie and his supporters would think the establishment is screwing them again,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, noting that the campaign often looks to Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed for its daily message.
Conspiracies surrounding Mr. Sanders’s political fortunes have been a particular fixation for Mr. Trump, dating back four years. During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump circulated the false and unsourced claim that an “analysis” — he did not say who wrote it or where it was published — concluded that Mr. Sanders would have won the Democratic nomination if not for superdelegates, the party leaders and officials who were not bound to vote for the winner of their state’s primaries or caucuses.
At the time, Mr. Trump and his advisers realized the potential political benefit in lobbing these kinds of accusations. Their campaign, which relied heavily on depressing Democratic turnout as a way to win battleground states like Florida and Michigan, stood to gain by fanning the flames of the rivalry between Mr. Sanders and Hillary Clinton and dredging up the bitterness that many Sanders supporters felt over their loss.
Even after winning the election, Mr. Trump continued to claim that Mrs. Clinton had somehow robbed Mr. Sanders of victory. When Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, released a memoir in 2017, Mr. Trump inaccurately said the book showed that Mrs. Clinton “bought the DNC & then stole the Democratic Primary” from Mr. Sanders.
In an interview, Mr. Fleischer said he had not seen the idea about the timing of the impeachment trial anywhere else and had not consulted with anyone when he first pitched it on Twitter. “I just do my best to realistically assess what’s happening in Washington,” he said. Mr. Fleischer said he believed that Ms. Pelosi does not think Mr. Sanders can beat Mr. Trump in November, and that “she has one big thing on her mind: that’s winning the White House.”
He said his tweet took off because “if it has merit, it starts to gather momentum.”
“If it has no merit, it’s just another tweet,” he added.
Republican staff members on Capitol Hill said the theory gained traction because of a broader narrative — pushed by Mr. Sanders’s own supporters — that Mr. Sanders was generally getting a raw deal from the mainstream news media and other candidates in the race.
In a statement on Friday, in response to a question from The New York Times about the president’s conspiracy tweet, Mr. Sanders denounced the theories. “Let’s be clear about who is rigging what: It is Donald Trump’s action to use the power of the federal government for his own political benefit that is the cause of the impeachment trial,” he said. “His transparent attempts to divide Democrats will not work, and we are going to unite to sweep him out of the White House in November.”
Ms. Pelosi’s team has also made it clear she was not trying to meddle in the nominating process.
“Impeachment has nothing to do with politics or the presidential race,” a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi, Drew Hamill, wrote on Twitter this week, responding to Mr. McCarthy’s accusation. “As usual, the Minority Leader has no idea what he’s talking about.”
On Friday, he added: “Regardless, Senator Sanders isn’t the only senator running, so this doesn’t make any sense.”