Spygate: The New Faux Counterscandal

Ken AshfordL'Affaire Russe, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

SPYGATE! This Trump tweet this morning (he had at least nine, following what was being said on Fox & Friends) started it:

This tweet sums it up:

There is no spy. It has been confirmed that nobody was embedded in the Trump campaign.  There was an informant by the name of Stefan Halper:

Stefan A. Halper, the FBI source who assisted the Russia investigation and is at the center of a standoff between congressional Republicans and the Justice Department, is a well-connected veteran of past GOP administrations who convened senior intelligence officials for seminars at the University of Cambridge in England.

In the summer and fall of 2016, Halper, then an emeritus professor at Cambridge, contacted three Trump campaign advisers for brief talks and meetings that largely centered on foreign policy, The Washington Post reported last week.

At some point that year, he began working as a secret informant for the FBI as it investigated Russia’s interference in the campaign, according to multiple people familiar with his activities.

The Post had previously confirmed Halper’s identity but did not report his name following warnings from U.S. intelligence officials that exposing him could endanger him or his contacts. Now that he has been identified as the FBI’s informant by multiple news organizations, including the Wall Street JournalNew York magazine and Axios, The Post has decided to publish his name.

That’s a CI (confidential informant), not a spy.

But much like the “Obama wired tapped Trump Tower” tweet of last year (reminder: he didn’t), Trump is pushing Spygate as the next fake scandal for the right to focus on.

You have to wonder how many times Trump (and Fox News) can lead conservatives to that well before they catch on. Jonathan Chait thinks it could still work:

Trump’s allies have seized on the procedural offense of the “spy.” The FBI was probing the Trump campaign because the campaign had brought on multiple figures who had suspicious financial or political connections to Russian intelligence — Carter Page (who had been on the FBI’s radar as a potential Russian agent for years), Paul Manafort (who had run a campaign on behalf of Russian interests in Ukraine), and Michael Flynn, among others. The defense has ignored all this evidence of guilt, and instead focused on the question of why Trump was being investigated at all.

“We can’t recall a similar case, even in the J. Edgar Hoover days, when the FBI decided it needed to snoop on a presidential campaign,” complains The Wall Street Journal editorial page. That this disparity could be explained by the fact that there haven’t been any recent presidential campaigns swarming with criminality is not a possibility the Journal contemplates.

Instead, Trump’s defenders implicitly assume that the level of covert Russian influence in Trump’s campaign was completely typical, and that the only difference is that Trump was somehow subjected to scrutiny. “For those ok w the FBI spying on the Trump campaign,” reasons Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, “how ok would you have been if in 2008 the FBI decided, because of Bill Ayers and terrorism, they needed to spy on the Obama campaign?” Let’s see. If Bill Ayers was a member of the 2008 Obama campaign, which he was not, and if his Weatherman terrorist cell was still operating, which it also was not, and if there was reason to believe the Weathermen were using Ayers to gain some kind of secret influence over Obama, then, yes, it would have been okay for the FBI to covertly probe his role. (Especially if it took care to keep the probe secret through the election, as the FBI did with its investigation of Trump.)

But since none of the hypothetical parallels Fleischer suggests are actually valid, then all he is doing is positing the existence of one set of right-wing fever dreams in order to justify another. His comparison between Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 actually shows how Republican paranoia inverted reality. Obama, whom the right suspected of harboring dark, secretive un-American influence, was completely loyal, while Trump (for all his blustering nationalism) allowed all sorts of secret hostile foreign influences to take hold. The irrational fear they projected onto Obama has actually come to life, and their response is to demonize the FBI as a nefarious secret police. Republicans today sound, ironically, a lot like Bill Ayers.

And this, amazingly enough, is the moderate version of the pro-Trump conspiracy. The case revolves around the premise that the FBI had no business snooping on Trump. It follows that any evidence Robert Mueller produces is the fruit of an illegitimate investigation. It is a legal principle much like the exclusionary rule, which requires prosecutors to disregard any evidence the police obtained improperly.

Trump may be forming an even more radical theory. Gabriel Sherman reports that Trump’s team “is attempting to build the case that anti-Trump forces in the F.B.I. entrapped his advisers using informants to plant evidence about Russian collusion.” Let this roll around in your mind for a moment. Trump is not merely accusing the FBI of planting a spy, but of planting evidence.

“The president himself is convinced that the secret F.B.I. informant who reportedly met with several Trump campaign advisers in 2016 was not merely an informant, but an Obama political operative,” Sherman reports. “One administration official told me the theory has become so widely accepted that people in the West Wing are paranoid that the F.B.I. has multiple informants working to take down Trump.”

Planting evidence? Multiple spies? Obama political operatives? You might think this is all so unhinged Trump could not possibly believe it, but then, you would have to explain Trump’s longtime infatuation with the conspiracy theories he imbibes in his binge-watching of Fox News, where hours of air time can pass by without the appearance of anybody who is hinged. And you might also think Trump could not get his party to go along with this theory, to dismiss all the evidence of culpability as having been fabricated by a pro-Obama cabal in the FBI. But then you would be ignoring how far down the Trump rabbit hole the Republican Party has gone so far.

Indeed.  Is there evidence of SPYGATE?

As it stands, the evidence that there was a “spy” — or multiple “spies” — within his campaign is as follows:

  1. A professor based in Britain reached out to Trump campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page before the election, apparently to evaluate any connections they might have had to Russian actors. The professor also had coffee once with senior adviser Sam Clovis, during which they discussed China.
  2. A former adviser, fired in the middle of the campaign, is telling people that he knows of another spy, but hasn’t offered any evidence to that effect.
  3. A “lot of people” are saying there were spies in the campaign, per Trump.


The argument that Halper was a spy planted in Trump’s campaign, though, early on suffers from two significant flaws.

The first, as we noted on Tuesday, is that Halper contacted Papadopoulos and Page only after they were already on the FBI’s radar. The FBI had interviewed Page in March; he met Halper in July, after he’d traveled to Moscow. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign began in July; Halper’s outreach to Papadopoulos began in September.

The second, of course, is that Halper was never embedded in the campaign. Nor is there any evidence he was ever spying on the campaign. His outreach was to three specific individuals, including Clovis — whose position in the campaign meant that he was a point of contact for both Page and Papadopoulos. It would be a bit like trying to take down the Mob by interviewing street hoods whom you thought you could convict on shoplifting charges.

So that’s all the public evidence, those meetings with a guy who was not in any sense part of Trump’s campaign. That and rumors.


So now it’s Spygate. As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe advances toward its conclusion, whatever that might be, the urgency of having Spygates to offset the political risk posed by the Russia investigation increases. “Spygate” is no more robust a theory than “tapped phones”-gate, but it’s more important now because the political stakes are so much higher. Trump will stick with it for a while — unless something else pops up that might be a more effective foil for him or a better way to undercut the legitimacy of the FBI.

That’s really the game, of course: If the FBI is investigating him, then it’s necessary to present as much evidence as possible that the FBI is biased in doing so. Always that need to give people a reason to doubt the negative things being said about him, just like his attacks on the press.

So, no.  And another columnist weighs in:

According to people familiar with Trump’s thinking, his team is attempting to build the case that anti-Trump forces in the F.B.I. entrapped his advisers using informants to plant evidence about Russian collusion. The theory goes that the F.B.I. later used these contacts with the Russians to delegitimize his presidency. Trump’s advisers say the intelligence community believed Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, but in case she didn’t, they concocted this elaborate plot to remove Trump from office. “Just when you think it can’t get stranger, it does,” a Trump adviser told me. Stone claims the anti-Trump conspiracy includes senior intelligence officials from the Barack Obama administration. “The guy who will end up burning in all this is [former C.I.A. director] John Brennan,” Stone told me. “If I were him I’d break the capsule and swallow it now. That psychopath is going down.”


As loopy as Stone’s theory can sound, the notion that there’s been a conspiracy among the Obama administration and the so-called Deep State to bring Trump down is more than a legal stalking horse—it’s now a dominant narrative in Trumpworld. The president himself is convinced that the secret F.B.I. informant who reportedly met with several Trump campaign advisers in 2016 was not merely an informant, but an Obama political operative. One administration official told me the theory has become so widely accepted that people in the West Wing are paranoid that the F.B.I. has multiple informants working to take down Trump. “There’s a paranoia about who else is one,” the official said.

This is, to put it simply, astounding. They create the lie, they have the lies echoed back to them, they believe the lie.

Here is Trump not answering a specific question about his evidence of “Spygate”