While Barr added nuance to his own comments over the course of his testimony — including that the question was largely about whether the “spying” was justified — he also told committee members that, “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal."
Barr’s comments kicked up a lot of dust in the world of political punditry, dust that Trump is happy to keep aloft. Conservatives and Trump supporters have seized on the semantic question of what constitutes “spying” as a rationale for demonstrating that the Trump-Barr presentation of what happened is accurate. Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs even went so far on Wednesday night as to suggest that Trump’s March 2017 tweet about Trump Tower being wiretapped was accurate.
It was not. But before we dig into the specifics of what Trump and his supporters are arguing, let’s review what we know happened.
Four Trump campaign staffers attracted attention from the FBI over the course of 2016. There was Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was with the campaign from March to August. There were two foreign policy advisers, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both of whom were named in March. Papadopoulos remained with the campaign throughout while Page resigned in late September. There was also Michael Flynn, an adviser to the campaign from early in 2016 through the transition.
The surveillance that’s attracted the most attention was a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant the FBI obtained to monitor Page’s communications in October, shortly before the election. Page, Papadopoulos and the manager of the campaign’s foreign policy team, Sam Clovis, were also contacted by a London-based FBI informant named Stefan Halper over the course of the campaign. Page met Halper in July, shortly after Page got back from a trip to Moscow. The two stayed in contact through September 2017. Halper contacted Clovis and Papadopoulos in August and September.
By then, the FBI had already opened a counterintelligence investigation into Papadopoulos, after being tipped off by Australian authorities that Papadopoulos had confided in an Australian diplomat back in May about Russia having emails incriminating Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. (Papadopoulos has also claimed to have been the target of a FISA warrant, though that’s not known to be the case.)
For his part, Flynn was informed that he was under investigation by the FBI shortly after the election.
Whether these acts constitute “spying” is the less interesting part of the question. It’s worth noting that Trump understood the potency of the term “spy” as it applied to Halper in particular. An AP report from last May suggested that Trump preferred that term to “informant” because it sounded more ominous, which he hoped would resonate with the public.
Ultimately, though, that’s the less important part of Trump’s claims. The important part is that he and Barr claim it was targeted “on a campaign."
That’s a different issue, one that was raised by former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. in 2017. Asked if the FBI was spying on Trump’s campaign, he said they weren’t; that, instead, they were spying on “what the Russians were doing.” (He noted that he didn’t like the word “spying,” probably for the same reasons that Trump embraced it.)
The FBI was running counterintelligence operations focused on several individuals who were, at various points, working for the campaign. They were investigating Page, Papadopoulos and Manafort as individuals and seeking to determine if any of them were working with Russia.
This idea is bolstered if we expand the window through which we’re looking at this.
Both Manafort and Page had interactions with the FBI before joining the campaign. Page was interviewed back in March 2013, when an alleged Russian agent mentioned Page as a possible target for recruitment. They interviewed him again in March 2016, though it’s not clear if it was before or after he joined the campaign. Manafort was interviewed by the FBI in July 2014, along with his longtime business partner (and, later, deputy as Trump’s campaign chairman) Rick Gates. Manafort claimed that interview was about “offshore consulting activities.”
Manafort’s history of work in Ukrainian politics on behalf of Russia-connected politicians and his work for the Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska — a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin — were well known before he joined Trump’s campaign. There was good reason to think there was a connection between Manafort and Russia while he was on the campaign. Once Page traveled to Moscow in early July 2016, there was good reason to be curious about his interactions, too.
Papadopoulos himself had described receiving information about Russian activity, even while he was carrying on an extensive series of communications with a Russian tied to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The investigation into Papadopoulos began on July 31. The FISA warrant on Page was initiated in late October, after he left the campaign. An investigation into Manafort’s business relationships began in the spring. It’s not clear when the Flynn investigation began, but it appears to have been predicated on his lobbying work for Turkey, not his work with Trump.
What we have, then, is not an investigation into the campaign, but investigations into people who were considered suspect. This idea is bolstered by a simple question: If the campaign itself was being investigated, why are there no reports of surveillance of Trump himself? Of his communications aide, Hope Hicks? Of Donald Trump Jr.? Of Corey Lewandowski or Stephen K. Bannon, who led the campaign before and after Manafort? Why didn’t the government wiretap Trump Tower, where the campaign was based, if the campaign was actually the target?
As with “spying,” arguing that his campaign was targeted serves a robust political goal. Instead of talking about how a candidate who was fighting the Republican establishment was forced to welcome help from sometimes-sketchy outsiders, Trump would instead rather talk about how the Deep State was out to get him. And so, inevitably it seems, we do.