Dismissed by critics as an outlandish conspiracy theory, so-called “spygate” is fast becoming a central feature of the Trump campaign as it seeks to go on offense in the wake of a report that identified 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump. The campaign is publicly calling for criminal investigations into former FBI officials, making “spygate” fundraising pitches and selling spy-themed merchandise. The goal, officials said, is to turn the Russia probe into a political winner that could help him secure another term.
“After two years of [investigations] and being vindicated, and now in fact the tables are turning in that the investigators will be investigated, there’s a certain amount of righteous indignation that’s warranted,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s reelection bid. “The president has already shown that he wants to talk about it. He’s been tweeting about it. I’m sure he’ll talk about it at rallies. It’s something that the campaign will continue to point to.”
Murtaugh highlighted a Thursday article from the New York Times describing how the FBI sent an investigator posing as a research assistant to meet with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in 2016 — a covert effort to better understand the campaign’s links to Russia. Murtaugh said it was “astounding” that the story had not received as much media coverage as some Russia-related episodes unearthed by Mueller.
Referring to the story on Friday, Trump said it was “bigger than Watergate, as far as I’m concerned.”
Trump has long sought to paint his political opponents as criminally suspect, spending much of 2016 leading “Lock her up!” chants that targeted his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
After Trump’s own conduct became the subject of Mueller’s criminal investigation — which did not establish that his campaign conspired with Russia’s election interference but indicated that he may have obstructed justice — the president is aiming to change the narrative by highlighting the allegations of improper spying by the FBI.
Trump has gotten a boost from Barr, who used recent congressional hearings about Mueller’s probe to express concerns that the Trump campaign may have been the victim of improper surveillance. When pressed, Barr declined to offer evidence and said he was simply “concerned about it” and “looking into it.”
Republicans have long claimed that the FBI’s actions targeting Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser whose communications were secretly surveilled in late 2016 and early 2017 under a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, amounted to political spying. Surveillance of Page took place after he left the Trump campaign and was authorized by several judges.
Democrats have criticized Barr’s allegations as irresponsible and have dismissed Trump’s charges of spying as a political smokescreen aimed at distracting from Mueller’s findings.
“The Trump campaign is trying to use a debunked conspiracy theory to distract from the Trump administration’s attacks on the rule of law and its attempts to cover up Mueller’s findings,” said Daniel Wessel, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Voters won’t be fooled.”
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is conducting an internal investigation into aspects of the Russia probe, including the FISA warrant targeting Page. Barr has said Horowitz’s report would probably be completed in May or June.
Trump has also said he will soon be declassifying documents related to the warrant.
“Declassifying that and much more — yes,” Trump said Wednesday in an interview with Boston Herald Radio’s “The Adriana Cohen Show.” “I will be releasing that and many other things.”
Trump’s focus on re-litigating the origins of the Russia probe serves a purpose beyond ginning up his political base, campaign aides and allies said.
It helps the president create a new narrative casting himself as a victim even as House Democrats pursue multiple investigations into Trump, his administration and his businesses.
As Democrats issue subpoenas, hold hearings and seek to interview witnesses identified in the Mueller report, Trump and his allies plan to offer counterprogramming by intensifying their public scrutiny of the Russia probe’s origins.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump confidant and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said he plans to investigate the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“When the Mueller report is put to bed, and it soon will be, this committee is going to look long and hard at how this all started,” he said Wednesday during a hearing with Barr.
The Mueller report documented that the FBI’s counterintelligence probe began after a foreign government alerted U.S. officials that Papadopoulos claimed in 2016 that he had heard about a Russian effort to help the Trump campaign by anonymously releasing damaging information about Clinton.
The Mueller report also documented multiple contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials as the Kremlin was taking action to interfere in the election. Several Trump aides were receptive to Russian help, and some were convicted of lying to investigators about their communications with Russians, the report found. Mueller did not establish that Trump’s campaign conspired in Russia’s effort to influence the election.
Trump allies believe there’s political benefit in continuing to talk about the Russia investigation, as it allows the president to cast himself as a victim of powerful forces like the FBI. Most do not mention that the FBI did not reveal its investigation into Trump’s campaign until after the election, while it made unprecedented disclosures about its investigation into Clinton’s use of private email for government business.
Clinton, who was not charged, has said that her loss was partially caused by those FBI disclosures in the days before the election.
Bryan Lanza, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition, said the president can prevail politically by using the Russia investigation to attack the Democrats.
“There are partisan Democrats that want to turn the page on an ugly part of American history,” he said. “But we’re not going to let them do that.”
The Trump campaign has already sought to turn the spying allegations into a fundraising pitch. There’s some evidence it’s working. A Republican Party official said that Trump’s campaign has had two days of fundraising totals above $1 million since the Mueller report was released last month. A campaign official said fundraising in the 24 hours after the report was released to the public and Congress on April 18 was up about 250 percent from previous days. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal fundraising figures.
The campaign, meanwhile, has been selling spy-themed merchandise. One T-shirt for sale depicts former president Barack Obama donning a set of spy glasses while lurking in thick green shrubbery.