In the grand tradition of Gretchen Wieners, President Trump has a new catchphrase that he is trying on for size.
“Spygate” made its debut on Wednesday morning during Trump’s “executive time,” the period during which he watches “Fox and Friends” before starting his official day. The term is a shorthand meant to refer to a scandal that Trump has insisted is potentially the worst in American history, easily eclipsing Watergate.
Not to damp his enthusiasm or anything, it’s also a scandal for which there’s no public evidence.
Trump’s claim is that the FBI put a “spy” in his campaign at the behest of Barack Obama’s White House as part of an effort to undercut his candidacy by alleging collusion with the Russians. It’s hard to square that claim with 1) Trump’s repeated insistence that the Russia investigation began only after he won as an excuse for the Democrats’ loss, and 2) the fact that America only learned about the investigation into Russian collusion after voting had already occurred. If Obama and the Democrats put a spy in his campaign to undercut his chances, they made a small strategic error by not mentioning anything publicly before votes were cast. But that’s the claim, because internal consistency is not a requirement for any conspiracy theory, much less this one.
As it stands, the evidence that there was a “spy” — or multiple “spies” — within his campaign is as follows:
- 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.
- 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.
- A “lot of people” are saying there were spies in the campaign, per Trump.
Update: Over the course of the day on Wednesday, Trump has also pointed to comments made by former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. on the program “The View.” As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake notes, Clapper didn’t say what Trump says he did.
There’s overlap between points 3 and 4 above, in that the “lot of people” Trump sees talking about a “spy” in his campaign are mostly people on Fox News like Judge Andrew Napolitano.
Trump’s case really comes down to that first point, that professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge who spoke with Trump staffers. His name, The Post reported this week, is Stefan Halper, and he did indeed contact both Page and Papadopoulos.
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.
Now, you may be thinking, Well, maybe Trump has seen other evidence that isn’t public. That’s possible, but it is undercut somewhat by the weeks-long fight that’s taken place over whether to reveal Halper’s relationship with the FBI. Why the focus on Halper if there’s better evidence than Halper out there?
This is also an administration that, early in 2017, invited Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to the White House complex to view classified documents that it believed would help bolster Trump’s off-the-cuff claim about phones at Trump Tower having been wiretapped during the campaign. That “spying” also did not occur, but the White House — or at least White House staffers — had few qualms about sharing material that might help prove it.
The “tapped phones” incident is a good reminder that we’ve seen this dance before: Trump whips up a conspiracy theory out of the ether and uses it to suggest that he is an unfair victim. He’s never been terribly worried about backing up his assertions with facts; his claims about seeing Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks come to mind. He learned from that incident that he could make a false claim and that his base would throw up enough scaffolding around it that it could stand on its own. It’s happened time and again, with Trump saying that something that didn’t happen actually did and his allies scrambling for scraps of evidence that suggest it might have.
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.
Unlike Gretchen Wieners in “Mean Girls,” Trump can make “Spygate” happen. What he has, that Wieners didn’t, is a constituency of people and television personalities willing and eager to make it happen.