Spygate, RIP. The conspiracy theory peddled by Donald Trump that the FBI had placed a “spy” inside the Trump campaign dominated cable news for two weeks. And then — poof!— it was gone, and the media moved on to Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets.
Spygate — or #spygate — died quietly once Republicans in Congress got a look at the FBI’s classified documents that showed that the “spy” was an FBI informant who set up meetings with George Papadopoulos and Carter Page as part of the bureau’s formal investigation into their ties with Russia. (Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about those contacts.)
The quick death of Spygate contrasts sharply with the last Trump-backed FBI conspiracy, #ReleaseTheMemo, about the Clinton-funded “pee” dossier used in the request for a FISA warrant to surveil Page. While #releasethememo generated weeks of outrage from GOP lawmakers, this time it was radio silence from the right.
“You had what sounded like the FBI spying on the Trump campaign, it sounded nefarious and James Bond-like," said national security lawyer Bradley Moss, who has represented intelligence community whistleblowers and media companies in privacy lawsuits. "But when the rubber met the road they found something far more mundane, far more routine. It’s exactly what law enforcement does all the time using confidential informants.”
After seeing the FBI documents, South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy effectively killed the conspiracy off on Fox News. “I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump,” he said.
Even Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, a reliable Trump ally, called the claims “baseless," adding "there is no evidence for that whatsoever."
Two-week conspiracy theory
Spygate started with a bang on May 17 — a tweet from Trump calling rumors that FBI spies embedded in his campaign “bigger than Watergate!”
The tweet was likely Trump’s reaction to a The New York Times story published the night before about the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump’s campaign’s ties to Russia, a top secret operation called “Crossfire Hurricane” that began in July 2016.
The article revealed that “at least one government informant met several times” with Papadopoulos and Page.
After three more days of tweeting, Trump turned up the heat by demanding that the Justice Department investigate the spy claims, also in a tweet, on May 20.
Walking the thin line between legitimizing Trump’s theory about the FBI and upholding the integrity of the FBI, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein responded, asking the department’s inspector general to expand an ongoing probe into whether the DOJ relied too heavily on the unverified dossier information for obtaining wiretap warrants.
“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Rosenstein said. The inspector general investigation will likely take several months.
The FBI informant first mentioned in the Times article, outed a day later as Cambridge University professor and counterintelligence expert Stefan Halper, did reach out to and meet with Page and Papadopoulos in summer and fall of 2016 in coordination with the FBI’s investigation, but based on what we know, he was not embedded in the campaign like Trump claims. Page had been surveilled by the FBI as far back as 2014 because of Russia’s attempts to recruit him as a spy, and Papadopoulos had met with people he understood to be tied to the Russian government who told them they had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
"He's trying to harden and incite his base through the most deliberate, the most intense misinformation campaign this country has ever seen"
Despite the revelations about Halper’s limited involvement in the investigation, Trump continued to tweet about the conspiracy daily, officially named it Spygate on May 23, reportedly in an attempt to generate more attention.
Republicans in Congress jumped on board and demanded access to documents related to the FBI’s use of an informant. They got that information during an unprecedented briefing with DOJ officials on May 24. Normally information about an ongoing investigation is kept secret, but eight members of Congress were able to view classified information in an effort to quell concerns.
California Republican Devin Nunes, the most outspoken critic of the FBI in Congress, has remained uncharacteristically silent since the briefing. A spokesman for Nunes did not return a request for comment.
Still, Spygate served its purpose in that it built more distrust for the Mueller investigation, which is a win for Trump in his campaign to portray the probe as illegitimate. More Americans are souring on the investigation, according to a May CNN poll, and another May poll from Navigator Research showed 59 percent of Americans don't believe the investigation has uncovered any evidence of crimes. (Mueller has charged 19 people, including four Trump associates, with crimes.)
Trump continues to insist that spies infiltrated his campaign, tweeting for a 30th time about the conspiracy Thursday.
"Everything he's doing is a strategy of incitement," said Steve Schmit, GOP consultant and former McCain campaign manager on MSNBC. "He's trying to harden and incite his base through the most deliberate, the most intense misinformation campaign this country has ever seen."
Trump knows that the endgame of the Russia investigation is political; it will come down to Congress to decide whether to impeach him based on special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings. As midterms the approach, along with the possibility of Democrats taking control of Congress, the more Spygate believers, the better.
Here are the key moments:
- May 17: Spygate is born
- May 20: Trump demands DOJ investigate
- May 21: The Washington Post identifies Sefan Halper as the informant
- May 23: Trump dubbs scandal “Spygate”
- May 24: DOJ officials brief lawmakers about FBI informant
- May 29: Trump GOP allies refute Spygate claims
- May 31: Trump blames media for not covering Spygate
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the press before boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on May 31, 2018, as he travels to Texas for Republican fundraisers. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)