Following CNN’s exclusive footage of the FBI arrest of President Donald Trump’s confidant Roger Stone, right-wing conspiracy theorists quickly raised alarm about CNN’s journalistic practices in an attempt to discredit the outlet — using a talking point that ricocheted across the internet and onto the president’s Twitter account.
Early Friday morning, an FBI team largely made up of furloughed agents who volunteered for duty without pay arrested Stone at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in conjunction with a federal indictment filed by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Stone’s arrest didn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that he has been a central figure in Mueller’s ongoing investigation of potential Russian interference in the 2016 election. But it did feature one unique attribute: It was captured by CNN’s news cameras.
"FBI. Open the door.”
Watch exclusive CNN footage of the FBI arresting longtime Trump associate Roger Stone. Stone has been indicted by a grand jury on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. https://t.co/ZQCuuxLHAG pic.twitter.com/moQwNndB91
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) January 25, 2019
It wasn’t long before the far-right’s most notorious conspiracy theorists raised suspicion about how CNN was able to capture the footage.
First was former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, who stated in a tweet posted just after 7:00 am that the “FBI obviously tipped off CNN…even if you don’t like Stone, it is curious why Mueller’s office tipped off CNN instead of trying to quietly arrest Stone.”
She quickly attempted to walk back that statement, later tweeting that CNN may or may not have been tipped off.
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) January 25, 2019
Nonetheless, her original tweet quickly racked up thousands of retweets and likes, and was parroted by several other conspiracy theorists like Jacob Engels, Erick Erickson, and Jordan Schachtel. By 10:00 am, the notion that the FBI was coordinating with CNN had made it into conspiracy clearinghouses like The Daily Caller, Gateway Pundit, and Infowars.
Late Friday morning, Trump himself posed the question: “Who alerted CNN to be there?”
Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION! Border Coyotes, Drug Dealers and Human Traffickers are treated better. Who alerted CNN to be there?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2019
Had Van Susteren and other skeptics watched CNN a bit longer, however, it would have become clear the only thing CNN was guilty of was good journalism practices.
Shortly before 7:30 am, CNN producer David Shortell — who was on the ground with a camera crew in Fort Lauderdale to capture the footage in question — appeared on the air to explain what transpired and how he happened upon the scene.
According to Shortell, unusual grand jury activity in Washington, D.C. the day before, coupled with months of reporting on the Russia investigation and a relatively short list of possible suspects who could be facing criminal charges, was enough for CNN journalists to instinctively send a crew to Stone’s house just in case he was the target.
Indeed, Friday’s arrest followed a similar script to previous police activity related to the Mueller investigation — a pre-dawn raid, featuring a small team of uniformed FBI agents. Both Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen were subjected to similar raids in 2017 and 2018.
CNN producer @davidgshortell describes the moment Roger Stone was taken into custody by the FBI. The longtime Donald Trump associate has been indicted by a grand jury on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller https://t.co/wUJEIkKDTw pic.twitter.com/AJ3JWWSHs3
— CNN (@CNN) January 25, 2019
Conservative commentators — including the president — often traffic in baseless speculation and outright fabrication, and falsely accuse the mainstream media of doing the same. CNN is a particular target, frequently singled out specifically by Trump as an example of “fake news.” Trump once tweeted a video of himself body-slamming a person whose head had been superimposed with the CNN logo.