It was in late August when Republican Sen. Mike Lee went in a weird and new direction. Commenting on new Covid-related lockdowns that did not and will not exist, the Utah Republican decided to amplify unfounded allegations from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars website.
Even by contemporary GOP standards, this was unsettling. Republicans have grown increasingly comfortable with strange ideas from the political fringe, but most of the party’s sitting U.S. senators recognize the value of steering clear of Alex Jones’ nonsensical misinformation. He is, after all, a media personality who owes nearly $1.5 billion in damages for spreading ugly lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Lee, however, apparently didn’t care.
A couple of days after Lee amplified false Covid-related claims, Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates told Lee via social media, “Senator, this is completely false. Respectfully, we’d urge you to double-check before sharing misinformation from a source that now has to pay tens of millions of dollars for spreading some of the most painful lies imaginable.”
That was good advice that the Utah Republican chose to ignore. A few months after promoting conspiratorial misinformation, Lee did it again last week. NBC News reported:
A Republican senator said over the weekend that he planned to question the director of the FBI on whether a Trump supporter currently serving four years in federal prison is an undercover federal agent. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promoted on his personal X account a conspiracy theory that one of the Jan. 6 videos released at the order of House Speaker Mike Johnson shows an undercover federal agent disguised as a Trump supporter.
By way of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, the Republican senator promoted a message showing a picture of a man on Capitol Hill that right-wing conspiracy theorists said was carrying an FBI badge. “I can’t wait to ask FBI Director Christopher Wray about this at our next oversight hearing,” Lee wrote.
There is, however, nothing to ask about: We already know the identity of the man in the picture. It was Kevin Lyons, a Jan. 6 defendant who described himself as an “idiot,” and who was sentenced to 51 months in prison. What conspiracy theorists thought was an FBI badge was apparently a vaping device.
In fringe circles, there are still people clinging to the idea that nefarious federal agents somehow participated in the assault on the Capitol, and the conspiracy theory that Lee helped promote was part of this ridiculous push.
Indeed, in a follow-up online item, Lee showed a video of Jan. 6 violence and asked, “How many of these guys are feds?”
A week later, the Utah Republican conceded to HuffPost that the man in the picture he promoted online probably wasn’t a federal agent disguised as a Donald Trump supporter. That said, Lee’s original online content still hasn’t been taken down, and the senator hasn’t made any effort to explain his support for fringe misinformation.
There’s also a larger context to consider. The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes reflected last week on Lee’s “strange, twisted journey.”
By now it is a story as old as time. A once-respected, apparently normal Republican politician looks in the mirror one day and decides, to hell with it, I’m going all in on the insanity. Somewhere in the mists of the Before Times, Mike Lee was a simulacrum of a serious conservative. But there is no longer any incentive to try to sound like William F. Buckley Jr., so Lee has decided to follow ElonAlexJonesTuckerMTGTrump into the feculent bog of conspiracism. Actually, he dove in face-first.
I’ll confess that every time this happens to a Republican official, I find it jarring. No one ever accused Lee of being a moderate GOP voice, but he presented himself as something of an intellectual. There was even some discussion in the not-too-distant past that the senator actually wanted to be considered for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lee held a safe seat in a reliably “red” state; he knew he’d probably never face a credible primary challenge; and he didn’t have any obvious incentives to go off the deep end.
And yet, here the senator is, amplifying Infowars and peddling bizarre Jan. 6 conspiracy theories.
It’s not too late for Lee to start working his way back to more sensible waters, but by all appearances, the Utahan has no interest in doing so.