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Update: Trump alluded to the Clapper quote again on Wednesday afternoon, though he said this time that Clapper “sort of admitted” to the spying. Again, Clapper explicitly said there was no spying.

James R. Clapper said something Tuesday that he maybe shouldn't have. In the course of rebutting President Trump's conspiracy theories about the FBI “spying” on his campaign, the former director of national intelligence momentarily conceded Trump's premise.

“They were spying on — a term I don't particularly like — but on what the Russians were doing,” Clapper said. Asked whether Trump should be happy the FBI was doing this, Clapper said, “He should be.”

Trump's response? Take that badly out of context.

Trump's tweet makes it sound like this is a direct Clapper quote, but it's not; it's RealClearPolitics's rather twisted headline about Clapper's interview on ABC's “The View” — “Clapper: Trump Should Be 'Happy' That The FBI Was 'Spying' On His Campaign.” But Trump takes the quotation marks out of the headline in a way that makes it look like Clapper said it. Clapper actually made clear in the same interview that the FBI didn't spy on Trump. Asked, “Was the FBI spying on Trump's campaign?” Clapper responded directly by saying, “No, they were not.”


To be clear, this is a really important semantic point. Trump and his allies have launched a concerted effort to insert the word “spy” in this debate, despite there being no evidence that there was anything untoward about the FBI's use of an informant, Stefan Halper, to look into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump included the word in ALL CAPS in four separate tweets Wednesday morning — including christening the supposed scandal as “SPYGATE.” The word also appeared almost incessantly on his favorite morning show, “Fox & Friends.”

I debated Fox News's Brit Hume on Wednesday morning over whether the word aptly applies to this case. He made the case that basically anybody seeking information about an organization to share with a government could be considered a “spy.”

The definition of spy, though, generally includes an adversarial relationship between the government and the organization that is being “spied” upon. Merriam-Webster defines spying as “to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes.” Oxford defines a spy as “a person employed by a government or other organization to secretly obtain information on an enemy or competitor.”

This is what Trump wants. It feeds his “witch hunt” narrative. For special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's findings to be rendered invalid with Trump's supporters (which would guard Trump from impeachment), this needs to have been a targeted effort to bring Trump down. “Informant” doesn't exactly drive that home; “spy” certainly does.

It may be technically correct that you can spy on someone who isn't your adversary. Merriam-Webster uses the term “usually,” after all. These terms are somewhat nebulous and undefined in law enforcement, as PolitiFact notes. Hume said the United States engages in espionage even with regards to allies such as Britain and Israel. That's fair, though I'd point out that U.S. interests are often at odds with even its allies, and “spying” on U.S. citizens is a whole different can of worms, legally speaking.

But words carry connotations, and the connotations that exist for “spy” are nefarious and make this sound like an operation to take Trump down. Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent, said Trump appears to be conjuring up images of someone subverting rules and norms, when counterintelligence experts have said using someone like Halper to strike up conversations with the Trump campaign was actually a normal course of investigating.

That's why Clapper resisted using the word, and that's why Trump and his allies are so anxious to take Clapper out of context in the service of defining him as a “spy” rather than an “informant.” It's also why Trump keeps using words such as “infiltrate” and “implant.” These all suggest something besides routine information gathering, which right now is all we have reason to believe the Halper situation was.

Amber Phillips contributed to this post.