“Clapper has now admitted that there was Spying in my campaign. Large dollars were paid to the Spy, far beyond normal. Starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. SPYGATE – a terrible thing!”
— President Trump in a tweet, May 24, 2018
President Trump, in a continuing effort to discredit the criminal investigation into his campaign’s possible links with Russia entities, has now seized on “spygate.” This refers to the news that the FBI obtained information from an informant — Stefan Halper, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge — who met with at least three members of Trump’s campaign staff suspected of having links to Russia.
As an informant, Halper openly asked questions; a spy uses tradecraft to obtain information. So far, there has been nothing to indicate that there was a “spy” mandate as part of Halper’s assistance for the FBI, which apparently started after the agency opened a counterintelligence probe. But that has not stopped Trump from trying to fan the flames with often inaccurate information.
Regarding the tweet above, Trump claims that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. admitted to the campaign spying, when in fact Clapper said the opposite.
Asked whether the FBI spied on the campaign, Clapper told “The View” on May 22: “No, they were not. They were spying on, a term I don’t particularly like, but on what the Russians were doing. Trying to understand, were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage or influence, which is what they do.”
In an interview on “PBS NewsHour” on May 23, Clapper said: “Well, I think he’s kind of distorted what I was trying to say, which was — actually took aversion to the term spy, which I don’t like anyway, but particularly it’s inappropriate in this context. … The intent, though, is the important thing, wasn’t to spy on the campaign, but rather to determine what the Russians were up to.”
While Trump claims “large dollars” were paid to Halper, it’s unclear what he received for his help on the counterintelligence probe. Halper was paid a little over $1 million for separate work for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment between 2012 and 2017 — and about 40 percent of the money was paid before Trump entered the presidential race. But no dollar figures for his assistance in the Russia probe have been reported.
This latest claim, clearly worthy of Four Pinocchios, is just part of a fog machine that the president has deployed for months against the probe, using hyperbolic claims of “worse than Watergate,” “McCarthyism” and, of course, “witch hunt.” Most have failed to gain long-term traction, and “spygate” may face the same fate. Democratic leaders, after a closed-door briefing from the FBI on the informant, said they were shown no evidence that supported Trump’s claim of spying.
Here is a guide to the various “scandals” about the probe that Trump has promoted since he became president — and what happened to them. For context, we will include the actions taken by federal investigators.
Feb. 13, 2017: Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, is forced to resign after misleading officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
March 4, 2017: ‘Obama had my wires tapped at the Trump Tower’
The New York Times had reported on Jan. 20, 2017, that investigators were examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of the probe into possible links between Russian officials and associates of Trump. In print, the headline was “Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides.”
Then, on March 4, after sketchy reports circulated that purported to expand on the surveillance, Trump tweeted allegations:
He provided no evidence for these assertions, though he told Tucker Carlson on March 15: “We will be submitting things before the committee very soon that has not been submitted as of yet.” Nothing was ever submitted, and then-FBI director James B. Comey and the Justice Department ultimately said the president’s claim was false.
On Sept. 1, the Justice Department said in a court filing that the FBI and the National Security Division confirmed that they had no record that would support Trump’s tweets: “Both FBI and NSD confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets. FBI again confirmed that they do not have any such records by consulting with personnel knowledgeable about Director Comey’s statements and the surveillance activities of the FBI.”
May 9, 2017: Trump fires Comey as FBI director.
May 17, 2017: Former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III is appointed special prosecutor and takes charges of the Russia investigation.
June 1: ‘The big story is the unmasking’
Trump began to tout an argument being made by one of his chief defenders, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee — the so-called unmasking of U.S. citizens who were incidentally picked up in surveillance of foreign targets that was a potential Obama-era scandal.
“The intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes told reporters March 23.
Trump openly mused that Susan E. Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, was in big trouble and may have committed a crime. “I think it’s truly one of the big stories of our time,” he told the New York Times on April 5.
But the story did not have legs and faded from sight. Numerous former national security officials told The Fact Checker that Rice, as national security adviser, had every right to request the identities of U.S. citizens who were incidentally recorded or referenced in surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
It turned out that Rice had unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had arrived for meetings with Trump aides, but the UAE did not provide the customary notice about his trip to the Obama administration. Republicans on the committee decided she did nothing illegal.
July 26: The FBI raids former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s house.
July 28: The FBI arrests former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos at Dulles Airport.
Aug. 10: ‘The Democrats colluded with Russia’
Trump has repeatedly tried to turn the tables by claiming that the Democrats, not his campaign, colluded with Russia. The allegation never made much sense because the Democrats were the victims of hacking operations that transferred emails and other information to WikiLeaks through apparent Russian connections.
But that has not stopped the president and his allies from throwing all sorts of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Hillary Clinton’s alleged role in the sale of a uranium enterprise to a Russian company was a campaign allegation, but Trump repeatedly raised it again as the Mueller investigation continued.
The president gained some traction for his case when it was revealed that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were the mysterious Democratic donors who paid a research firm, Fusion GPS, to collect information on Trump’s Russia ties. That money led to an assignment for retired British spy Christopher Steele, who assembled the “dossier,” a collection of 17 memos based on interviews Steele had with unidentified Russian sources.
The memos, among other things, allege that the Russian government had been seeking to split the Western alliance by cultivating and supporting Trump and also gathering compromising information — “kompromat” — on him in an effort to blackmail him. The memos, among other allegations, claim that the Russian government fed the Trump campaign “valuable intelligence” on Clinton. The dossier was eventually circulated within the FBI, and a salacious portion of it was discussed by Comey in his first briefing for Trump.
The White House began to argue that because Steele was getting information from Russian officials in part with funds provided by the Clinton campaign, the Russians were helping Clinton. Officials also suggested that the whole investigation was tainted because it started with the dossier. But that was undercut by the revelation that the probe actually started because of a report from an Australian diplomat that Papadopoulos appeared to know about the Russian hacking before WikiLeaks began releasing details.
Oct. 5: Papadopoulos signs an agreement pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents about his interactions with Russians. He becomes a cooperating witness.
Oct. 30: Manafort and former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates are charged in a 12-count indictment; Papadopoulos’ plea agreement is released.
Nov. 30: Flynn pleads guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn has yet to be sentenced. He is cooperating with investigators.
Feb. 2, 2018: Richard Pinedo enters a deal agreeing to plead to identity fraud. He created accounts for unidentified offshore users connected with the Russia investigation. He is cooperating with investigators.
Feb. 3: ‘The FBI was politically biased against me’
The release of texts by two FBI agents who were lovers — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — and a four-page report released by House Republicans, known as the Nunes memo, spurred Trump to try to build a narrative that the FBI was politically biased against him.
The Nunes memo suggested that a group of politically biased law enforcement officials set out to sabotage Trump, with the Steele dossier as a key piece of evidence. The memo focused on the FBI application for a wiretap order that targeted Carter Page, a former Trump adviser, after he had left the campaign. The classified memo, which Trump ordered released, claimed that law enforcement officials had abused their powers by failing to make clear that one of the pieces of evidence was the dossier; they claimed it was tainted by political bias because of its Democratic origins.
Trump celebrated the release on Twitter.
But the memo also confirmed that the investigation of the Trump campaign started with Papadopoulos, not the Steele dossier. The impact of the memo further faded with the FBI’s strong statement that it contained “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” as well as the release of a Democratic memo that sharply disputed the conclusions of the Nunes memo.
Meanwhile, the texts between Strzok and Page led to Strzok’s removal from the Mueller probe because they indicated an anti-Trump bias. After Trump was elected, Page sent a text to Strzok, saying: “Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.” That spurred speculation among the president’s allies about possible anti-Trump meetings, but eventually it was concluded to be a joke.
Another text from Page, on Sept. 2, 2016, spurred even more frenzy, this time that the FBI was briefing Obama on the Clinton email investigation. (Strzok was a key player on that probe, too.) Page wrote: “potus wants to know everything we are doing.”
But it turned out the reference was to briefings on the Russia investigation, not the Clinton investigation.
Feb. 16: The Department of Justice charges 13 people and three companies — Internet Research Agency LLC, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering — with a long-running scheme to criminally interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Feb. 20: Alex van der Zwaan pleads guilty to making false statements to the FBI. He had worked with Gates and Manafort when they served as political consultants in Ukraine.
Feb. 22: New charges are added for Manafort and Gates, including 18 counts of financial crimes.
Feb. 23: Gates pleads guilty to two charges: conspiring to defraud the U.S. regarding the millions he and Manafort made working for Ukraine and lying to the FBI. Gates is now a cooperating witness.
March 18, 2018: ‘The investigators are hardened Democrats’
Trump has repeatedly raised questions about conflicts of interest and bias.
Eleven members of Mueller’s team have made political donations to Democrats, compared with five with no record of such donations. Five of the 16 known members contributed to Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
The Department of Justice is legally barred from discriminating against career appointees based on political affiliation, so Mueller, a longtime Republican, is not permitted to ask about political affiliation. Mueller took action against Strzok when texts expressing anti-Trump sentiments were discovered. But he can’t inquire about political leanings before hiring.
In any case, Mueller has remained absolutely silent during the probe, never responding to any of Trump’s attacks or complaints. For a president who loves to engage in verbal combat, that must be the most frustrating thing of all.
Current (known) tally: Mueller has indicted or obtained guilty pleas from 19 people and three companies, including four former Trump advisers. Three former Trump aides have pleaded guilty.
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