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William Barr’s highly questionable use of Trump’s ‘spying’ talking point

Attorney General William P. Barr on April 10 defended reviewing the start of the Trump campaign probe, saying, "spying on a political campaign is a big deal." (Video: Reuters)

From almost the moment he was nominated as President Trump’s attorney general, the question has been whether William P. Barr would do Trump’s bidding. He was assuming an important post in which Trump had grown frustrated with his predecessor’s unwillingness to do so, after all, and Barr’s own commentary on issues that personally affected Trump seemed to align with the president’s.

Signs are increasing that Barr is at least saying the kinds of things Trump wants to hear.

At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday morning, Barr confirmed that he is looking into what he called “spying” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Barr said. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.”

When pressed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on whether he indeed viewed it as “spying” on Trump’s campaign, Barr said, “I think spying did occur.”

“The question is whether it was adequately predicated,” he said. “I’m not suggesting it was not adequately predicated, but I need to explore that.”

The existence of that inquiry is notable enough; this is what Trump has been pushing for a very long time, in arguing that the entire Russia investigation was a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” aimed at bringing him down. (Barr later allowed that he had “no specific evidence” that he could share about actual wrongdoing by the Justice Department in the Russia probe.)

But his use of the word “spying” might be just as notable. That is a highly disputed term when it comes to what the FBI did relative to the Trump campaign in 2016.

There are a few things we know about that critics of the FBI’s activities have characterized as spying. One is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But that came after he had left the campaign, so it wasn’t technically spying on a campaign official. The FBI had also been interested in Page for years — long before he was on the Trump campaign.

Then there were a couple of other non-FISA related efforts to glean information from both Page and another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos. The New York Times reported in May 2018 about the activities of an informant, who was later revealed to be Stefan Halper:

... At least one government informant met several times with Mr. Page and Mr. Papadopoulos, current and former officials said. That has become a politically contentious point, with Mr. Trump’s allies questioning whether the F.B.I. was spying on the Trump campaign or trying to entrap campaign officials.

Unlike the Page FISA warrant, this came even as these advisers were serving on the campaign. But as the Times noted, the idea that it constituted “spying on a political campaign,” as Barr put it, is highly contentious. One reason is the nefarious connotations of “spying,” and another is the idea that it was specifically “directed at the Trump campaign,” as Barr said, rather than at potential Russian interference in the 2016 election.

When Trump alleged that the FBI had spied on his campaign, former FBI director James B. Comey said this was simply an information-gathering effort — emphasizing that the “actual” term is “the use of Confidential Human Sources.”

Former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. was asked around the same time, “Was the FBI spying on Trump’s campaign?” and he responded directly. “No, they were not.”

At another point in the same interview, Clapper seemed to momentarily borrow the term Trump was using. “They were spying on — a term I don’t particularly like — but on what the Russians were doing,” Clapper said. Trump has misleadingly used that quote to argue that Clapper was confirming that spying did exist.

And that’s the other point here. There was clearly an information-gathering effort going on. The surveillance we know about came after Page was off the campaign. From there, the question is whether you consider hiring an informant to talk to a couple of Trump campaign advisers to be “spying on a political campaign.” Clapper suggests that, even if you do consider it “spying,” the target was Russia and not the campaign. So the involvement of the Trump campaign was more incidental.

As I wrote after that Clapper interview, this is more than just a pointless semantic argument. Trump’s use of this term implies a much more nefarious-sounding effort, and the idea that it was targeted at his campaign is a big piece of that:

The definition of spy ... 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.

On Wednesday, Barr emphasized that the “spying” might have been warranted and A-okay. But he also essentially subscribed to both of those highly disputed Trump talking points. And that lends legitimacy to what, at this point, is essentially a Trump conspiracy theory.