The arrest of Roger Stone on Friday morning was a big deal in the Mueller investigation. But for President Donald Trump and many of his supporters, the bigger deal was the presence of CNN cameras outside Stone's home in Florida — and how the network knew to be there to capture the arrest.
In a tweet after the arrest, Trump asked, "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?
The president's tweet came hours after former cable news anchor Greta Van Susteren tweeted, without evidence, that the FBI had "obviously tipped off CNN" to the fact that it was going to raid Stone's house.
"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 wrote. "Quiet arrests are more likely to be safe to the FBI and the person arrested."
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Stone, 66, the president's longtime friend and former campaign adviser, was arrested at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on charges of obstruction, making false statements and witness tampering as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.
After being released on bond, Stone said he was being "falsely accused" and would never testify against the president.
Baseless accusations and conspiratorial thinking have become a feature of American politics in the Trump era, but the implication of collusion between the FBI and CNN was, for many journalists, a bridge too far.
Van Susteren was roundly criticized for her tweet by reporters and former colleagues, and she later corrected it.
"It is not obvious that FBI tipped off CNN ... someone else could have tipped them off," she wrote on Twitter. "I am not criticizing CNN for being there," she later added. "They out hustled other news orgs."
Let me correct: it is not obvious that FBI tipped off CNN...someone else could have tipped them off. https://t.co/e3yVoE6BcV
By that point, however, the conspiratorial thinking had spread across social media and onto conservative media outlets, including The Daily Caller and Newsmax. Most significantly, it had been echoed by the president himself.
Forced to reckon with the baseless accusations, CNN issued a reply to the president via Twitter: "CNN’s ability to capture the arrest of Roger Stone was the result of determined reporting and interpreting clues revealed in the course of events. That’s called journalism."
In a more detailed report, CNN's Jeremy Herb explained how the network's presence "was the product of good instincts, some key clues, more than a year of observing comings at the D.C. federal courthouse and the special counsel's office — and a little luck on the timing."
CNN's detailed explanation appeared to put out the fire for anyone who isn't predisposed to pro-Trump, anti-media conspiracy theories.
But as Recode co-founder and MSNBC contributor Kara Swisher noted on Twitter, the fact that CNN had to explain it in the first place was .... "ridonkulous."
Dylan Byers is a senior media reporter for NBC News and is based in Los Angeles.