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Trump’s win: We’re debating a ‘spy,’ not an ‘informant’

Stefan A. Halper, the informant who assisted the FBI's Russia investigation during 2016, is drawing the ire of President Trump and House Republicans. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s deployment of the term “spy” in a tweet last week was deliberate, according to reporting from the Associated Press.

“Trump has told confidants in recent days that the revelation of an informant was potential evidence that the upper echelon of federal law enforcement has conspired against him,” the AP’s Mary Clare Jalonick and Jonathan Lemire wrote. “Trump told one ally this week that he wanted ‘to brand’ the informant a ‘spy,’ believing the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public.”

It has, and Trump’s relentless insistence on using the term certainly hasn’t hurt. Trump’s pre-presidency focus on branding has served him well, as he has realized that the words of the president result in the sort of coverage that a business could only dream of. Sometimes that’s to his detriment, when the media pick up falsehoods or mistakes and amplify them. But when Trump wants to shift the way the media and the country talk about a subject, a few tweets can make that shift effectively.

At issue is a confidential informant, Stefan Halper, who apparently contacted two Trump campaign advisers, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, in 2016 to seek out information for the FBI. Halper’s outreach came only after the FBI was already focused on Page and Papadopoulos, and at no point was he directly involved in the Trump campaign itself. Nor were Page and Papadopoulos high-ranking staffers; when Papadopoulos was first wrapped up in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, he was disparaged as a “coffee boy.”

On Thursday, congressional leaders were shown, after a protracted fight with the FBI, information about Halper’s role that House Republican allies of Trump clearly hoped would suggest political motivation behind his work. Democrats quickly came out and declared that there was no evidence of any “spy” in the Trump campaign.

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Democrat Adam B. Schiff told reporters on May 24 that there is still no evidence of a “spy” in the Trump campaign. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans who were in the briefings made no statement to the contrary. In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) offered one reason, pointing out that “a confidential informant is not a spy.”

That didn’t prevent Trump from alleging a spy in three early morning tweets, including one that gets to Graham’s point.

Nearly everything about this is wrong: Halper wasn’t “placed in” Trump’s campaign, there’s no evidence that anyone else was, there’s no sign that anything illegal took place (though that allegation is one Trump makes a lot) and Halper’s outreach to Page and Papadopoulos came well after the FBI spoke to Page in March 2016 and began investigating Papadopoulos in July.

Oh, and as the Graham quote makes clear, it’s not just Democrats drawing that distinction.

But here we are, again, debating “spy”! Trump’s effort is paying off even as we debunk his use of the term.

He first tweeted about a “spy” last Friday, adding the catchy term “Spygate” on Wednesday morning. This chart, using data from the Internet Archive’s TV news database, shows how the term got a bit of pickup after Trump used it. No network used it more than MSNBC, interestingly — presumably in a disparaging context.

But notice what had happened before that. CNN and MSNBC were mostly talking about an “informant,” while Fox News had already picked up on “spy.” After Trump’s “Spygate” tweet, CNN barely talked about an informant at all. (Interestingly, RT — formerly Russia Today — didn’t pick up on “Spygate” at all.)

We can visualize the shift in focus by comparing the frequency of the use of “spy” and “informant” on the three major cable networks by day. There was a spike in “informant” late last month when Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, the central figure in that June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, copped to being an informant for the Kremlin. But when the debate over Halper first emerged (even before he was identified publicly), “informant” was outpacing “spy” — until Trump drew new attention to the idea with his new expression.

Trump hasn’t pointed to any evidence that there was a spy in his campaign, relying heavily on a misquote of former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.

Clapper said in an interview on “The View” that the Trump campaign was not itself under surveillance, with authorities instead “[t]rying to understand were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage or influence which is what they do.”

“They were spying on — a term I don’t particularly like — but on what the Russians were doing,” he said.

It is, however, a term that Trump likes.