Spygate (conspiracy theory)
Spygate is a conspiracy theory initiated by President Donald Trump in May 2018 that the Obama administration had implanted a spy in his 2016 presidential campaign for political purposes. The
On May 22–23, 2018, Trump made these assertions, without providing evidence, adding that it was done in an effort to help Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton, win the general election. He said this person was paid a "massive amount of money" for doing so. Stefan Halper, a longtime FBI informant, had approached separately three Trump campaign advisers in 2016 in a covert effort to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, but as of April 2019, no evidence has surfaced that he had joined Trump's campaign or acted improperly. On the contrary, the FBI has maintained that it did not place anyone within the Trump campaign, but rather relied on sources that had campaign contacts.
On June 5, 2018, Trump further alleged that a counterintelligence operation into the Trump campaign had been running since December 2015. The House Intelligence Committee, then in Republican control, concluded in an April 2018 report that the FBI counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign began in late July 2016, while the February 2018 Nunes memo written by Republican aides reached the same conclusion, as did the February 2018 rebuttal memo by committee Democrats.
High-ranking politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as Fox News personalities, have dismissed Trump's allegations as lacking evidence and maintained that the FBI did nothing improper. Trump's claims have been shown to be false.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot described Spygate as the latest example in a "nonstop" series of Trump's "nonsensical" allegations of a "Deep State" conspiracy against him. According to Boot, this included Trump's January 2018 allegations that texts between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were tantamount to "treason" — allegations that Trump made despite the fact that there was no evidence of an anti-Trump conspiracy.
In early February 2018, the Nunes memo — written by aides of Republican Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — confirmed that a tip about George Papadopoulos "triggered the opening of" the original FBI counterintelligence investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia in late July 2016. Later that month, a rebuttal memo by committee Democrats stated that "the FBI initiated its counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016".
In April 2018, the House Intelligence Committee, then in Republican control, released a final report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which stated that the House Intelligence Committee found that "in late July 2016, the FBI opened an enterprise CI [counterintelligence] investigation into the Trump campaign following the receipt of derogatory information about foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos". In March 2019, Nunes, the then-ranking member of the committee, asserted that it was "for certain" false that the FBI investigation began in late July 2016 as his earlier report had found, but media reports offered no further evidence or explanation from Nunes on this claim.
On May 16, 2018, The New York Times reported the existence of a 2016 FBI investigation named Crossfire Hurricane tasked with investigating whether individuals within the Trump campaign had inappropriate or illegal links to Russian efforts to interfere with the election. Four individuals — Michael T. Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos — were initially investigated because of such ties. During the investigation, the FBI obtained phone records and other documents using national security letters. The Times also reported that FBI agents, believing that Trump would lose the election, and cognizant of Trump's claims that the election was rigged against him, tried to avoid allowing the investigation to become public as they feared that Trump would blame his defeat on the revelation of the investigation.
Although an FBI informant, Stefan Halper, spoke separately to three Trump campaign advisers – Carter Page, Sam Clovis and George Papadopoulos – in 2016 in an effort to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, there is no evidence that Halper had actually joined Trump's campaign. Page said that he "had extensive discussions" with Halper on "a bunch of different foreign-policy-related topics", ending in September 2017. A former federal law enforcement official told The New York Times that their initial encounter at a London symposium on July 11–12, 2016 was a coincidence, rather than at the direction of the FBI. Clovis's attorney said that Clovis and Halper had discussed China during their sole meeting on August 31 or September 1, 2016, and Clovis stated in May 2018 that it appeared Halper was only offering his assistance to the campaign. The New York Times reported that on September 15, 2016 Halper asked Papadopoulos if he knew of any Russian efforts to disrupt the election campaign; Papadopoulos twice denied he did, despite Joseph Mifsud telling him the previous April that Russians had damaging Hillary Clinton emails, and Papadopoulos bragging about it to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer in May. WikiLeaks released DNC emails on July 22, and four days later the Australian government informed the FBI of Downer’s conversation with Papadopoulos, triggering the opening of the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections on July 31. Papadopoulos was paid $3,000 by Halper for a research paper on the oil fields of Turkey, Israel and Cyprus.
In June 2018, the Office of the Inspector General released a report on its counter-investigation into the FBI's investigation of the Hillary Clinton email controversy. This report stated: "On July 31, 2016, just weeks after the conclusion of the Midyear investigation [into Clinton], the FBI opened its investigation of Russian interference in the ongoing presidential election [...] the Russia investigation, which touched upon the campaign of then candidate Trump."
The Mueller Report of the Special Counsel investigation, completed in March 2019, states that the Papadopoulos information about Russia having acquired damaging material on Clinton "prompted the FBI on July 31, 2016, to open an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump Campaign were coordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities".
In April 2019, The New York Times reported that the FBI had asked Halper to approach Page and Papadopoulos, although it was not clear if he had been asked to contact Clovis. In May 2019, the Times reported that Page had urged Halper to meet with Clovis and that the FBI was aware of the meeting but had not instructed Halper to ask Clovis about Russia matters. The Times also reported that the FBI also sent an investigator under the pseudonym Azra Turk to meet with Papadopoulos, while posing as Halper's assistant. The Times stated that the FBI considered it essential to add a trained and trusted investigator like Ms.Turk as a "layer of oversight," in the event the investigation was ultimately prosecuted and the government needed the credible testimony of such an individual, without exposing Halper as a longtime confidential informant.
Trump and his allies' allegations
On May 22, Trump made the following accusation on Twitter without providing any evidence:
If the person placed very early into my campaign wasn't a SPY put there by the previous Administration for political purposes, how come such a seemingly massive amount of money was paid for services rendered – many times higher than normal ... Follow the money! The spy was there early in the campaign and yet never reported Collusion with Russia, because there was no Collusion. He was only there to spy for political reasons and to help Crooked Hillary win – just like they did to Bernie Sanders, who got duped!
A day later, he followed up with a related tweet:
SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!
The Associated Press reported that Trump privately said that he wanted "to brand" the informant as a "spy" as using a more nefarious term than "informant" would supposedly resonate more with the public. Trump has not offered any evidence for Spygate when asked for it, instead saying: "All you have to do is look at the basics and you'll see it."
In the May 22 tweets, Trump wrote that Halper, a longtime FBI informant, was paid a "massive amount of money" and concluded that he thus must be a spy implanted for "political purposes". However, the $1 million in contracts for “social sciences and humanities” research, some of which Halper subcontracted to other researchers, were signed with the Defense department's Office of Net Assessment between 2012 to 2016, with 40% of the money awarded before Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. It is unknown if the FBI paid Halper at all. Halper worked for the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and continued as a State and Defense department advisor until 2001. He had been considered for an ambassadorship in the Trump administration.
In the May 23 tweets, Trump published a false quote attributed to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that "Trump should be happy that the FBI was SPYING on his campaign." Instead, when asked "Was the FBI spying on Trump's campaign?", Clapper said, "No, they were not." Clapper added that Trump should have been happy that the FBI was investigating "what the Russians were doing", and "were the Russians infiltrating" his campaign or trying to influence the election. Clapper later said that while some of the surveillance fit the dictionary definition of "spying," he objected strongly to the use of the term because of its misleading connotations.
On May 25, The Washington Post wrote that several conservative sources have sided with Trump to embrace and promote Spygate, including the Fox & Friends talk show and political commentators Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity for Fox News, the website Breitbart, and also radio show host Rush Limbaugh. Meanwhile, Infowars host Alex Jones took credit for coining the "Spygate" term.
On May 26, Trump questioned "why didn't the crooked highest levels of the FBI or 'Justice' contact me to tell me of the phony Russia problem?" NBC News reported in December 2017 that after Trump won the Republican nomination, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) "briefed and warned" him that foreign adversaries, including Russia, might attempt to spy on and infiltrate his campaign. Trump was told to alert the FBI of any suspicious activity.
On May 27, when Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani was asked whether the promotion of the Spygate theory was meant to discredit the special counsel investigation, he replied that the investigators "are giving us the material to do it. Of course, we have to do it in defending the president ... it is for public opinion" on whether to "impeach or not impeach" Trump.
On June 5, Trump made new accusations on Twitter, again without providing any evidence:
Wow, Strzok-Page, the incompetent & corrupt FBI lovers, have texts referring to a counter-intelligence operation into the Trump Campaign dating way back to December, 2015. SPYGATE is in full force! Is the Mainstream Media interested yet? Big stuff!
However, the December 2015 texts do not make any reference to the Trump campaign or Russia.
This particular conspiracy theory promoted by Trump was traced by media outlets to originate from a Twitter user called @Nick_Falco, who on June 4 posted about the words "oconus lures" in December 2015 texts between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. While "oconus" refers to "outside the continental United States", Falco inferred that "lures" refer to spies. However, according to the United States Department of Justice, "lures" refer to "subterfuge to entice a criminal defendant to leave a foreign country so that he or she can be arrested". Falco questioned if "the FBI wanted to run a baited Sting Op using foreign agents against Trump", despite none of the texts mentioning the Trump campaign or Russia. Also on June 4, Falco's tweet spread to the r/conspiracy forum on Reddit, and also The Gateway Pundit, a far-right, pro-Trump website which has published multiple false conspiracy theories. The Gateway Pundit wrote an article entitled: "Breaking: Senate releases unredacted texts showing FBI initiated MULTIPLE SPIES in Trump campaign in December 2015". However, the texts referenced by Falco were publicly released by a Senate committee months earlier in February 2018. On June 5, Lou Dobbs of Fox Business said that "the FBI may have initiated a number of spies into the Trump campaign as early as December of 2015". Dobbs's interviewee on the show, Chris Farrell of the conservative group Judicial Watch, agreed that the existence of an "intelligence operation directed against then-candidate Trump" was "indisputable". Trump's June 5 tweet on Spygate came less than an hour after Dobbs's interview, with Trump also tweeting praise of Dobbs for the "great interview".
After Trump made his June 5 tweet, Fox News described the news as "New Strzok-Page texts released", with Fox News television host Laura Ingraham saying: "It certainly appears they were looking to put more lures into the campaign in 2015." Republican Representative Ron DeSantis, a panelist on Ingraham's show, agreed that it was "clear" that the FBI investigation into Trump started earlier than July 2016.
After receiving information about George Papadopoulos's activities, the FBI began surveilling the Trump campaign to see if it was coordinating with the Russian's interference efforts. The revelation prompted the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the Trump campaign, which started on July 31, 2016.
Reactions and criticism
Shortly after Trump's allegation, several members of Congress received a classified briefing on the matter from the Justice Department. Trey Gowdy, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee and a former federal prosecutor, stated after the briefing:
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...President Trump himself in the Comey memos said if anyone connected with my campaign was working with Russia, I want you to investigate it, and it sounds to me like that is exactly what the FBI did. I think when the President finds out what happened, he is going to be not just fine, he is going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard.... The FBI is doing what he told them to do.
Republican Representative Tom Rooney, who is on the House Intelligence Committee, chided Trump for creating "this thing to tweet about knowing that it's not true.... Maybe it's just to create more chaos." Republican senator Jeff Flake has said that the "so-called Spygate" is a "diversion tactic, obviously". while Republican senator Marco Rubio said that "it appears that there was an investigation not of the campaign but of certain individuals who have a history that we should be suspicious of that predate the presidential campaign of 2015, 2016".
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has said that Spygate is "lie-gate", a "piece of propaganda the president wants to put out and repeat". He accused President Trump of repeatedly spreading baseless lies by quoting that "people are saying ..." or "we've been told ...". Michael Hayden, a retired general, former Director of the National Security Agency and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said that Trump, through Spygate, was "simply trying to delegitimize the Mueller investigation, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and he's willing to throw almost anything against the wall".
Journalist Shepard Smith has said that "Fox News can confirm that Spygate is not" true; "Fox News knows of no evidence to support the president's claim. Lawmakers from both parties say using an informant to investigate is not spying. It's part of the normal investigative process." Former judge and Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano concurred:
The allegations from Mayor Giuliani over the weekend, which would lead us to believe that the Trump people think the FBI had an undercover agent who finagled his way into Trump's campaign and was there as a spy on the campaign seem to be baseless — there is no evidence for that whatsoever. But this other allegation with this professor, whose name we're not supposed to mention, that is standard operating procedure in intelligence gathering and criminal investigations...I understand the president's frustration that he was not informed of the fact that his campaign was being investigated, not because they think the campaign did anything wrong, but some people may have unwittingly...welcomed the Russian involvement in the campaign, and Donald Trump didn't know about it.... [It] is such a stunningly unremarkable event, because law enforcement does this all the time.
Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, has said, in regard to Spygate: "The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive."
Aaron Blake, writing for The Washington Post, wrote that the "central problem" of the Spygate conspiracy theory is the "fact that these people who supposedly would do anything to stop Trump ... didn't". In the period before the election, the FBI "didn't use the information it had collected to actually prevent Trump from becoming president", as it did not publicly reveal it was already investigating links between George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Russia. Rather, the reports before the election were that the FBI saw no clear link between Russia and the Trump campaign, instead believing that Russia was trying to disrupt the election without purposely trying to elect Trump.
From May 31 to June 5, 2018, Quinnipiac University conducted a national poll of 1,223 voting Americans regarding the Spygate allegations. With the margin for error being 3.4%, a majority of 56% believed that the FBI's usage of a confidential informant was "routine procedure", while 33% agreed with Trump that the FBI was spying on the Trump campaign. The only group of voters with a majority believing Trump were Republicans at 66%.
The New York magazine addressed the June 2018 allegations by stating: "It's not surprising or scandalous that FBI agents would be using espionage tradecraft. Gateway Pundit seems to have invented the crucial factual element of the conspiracy out of thin air" while "Trump is citing right-wing conspiracy theorists who operate at a full level further removed from reality than the right-wing conspiracy theorists he customarily cites."
Zack Beauchamp of Vox, which noted that "the FBI's investigation into Trump didn't open until July 2016", wrote about the situation which was "entirely unfounded in the actual evidence" occurred because "Fox picks up on some random internet rumor, the president picks it up from Fox, and then Fox and other right-wing outlets leap to defend what the president tweeted, which only reinforces Trump's sense that he's right." After reporting on both Trump's May 2018 and June 2018, Beauchamp wrote that the “best way to analyze 'Spygate' is ... a conspiracy theory ... a ginned-up controversy Trump has capitalized on to justify his argument that the FBI is hopelessly biased against him”.
This article needs more complete citations for verification. (April 2019) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
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... we've seen this dance before: Trump whips up a conspiracy theory out of the ether and uses it to suggest that he is an unfair victim. He's never been terribly worried about backing up his assertions with facts; his claims about seeing Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks come to mind. He learned from that incident that he could make a false claim and that his base would throw up enough scaffolding around it that it could stand on its own. It's happened time and again, with Trump saying that something that didn't happen actually did and his allies scrambling for scraps of evidence that suggest it might have. So now it's Spygate.
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This is also the explanation for Trump's nonstop peddling of nonsensical conspiracy theories to convince his acolytes that he is the victim of a Deep State plot ... In January, Trump claimed that the evidence of the FBI conspiracy was to be found in texts exchanged between two FBI employees ... Onward and downward! Trump's latest conspiracy theory, unveiled last month, is “Spygate”
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Well, if the newly released Nunes memo is correct, House Republicans and the Trump administration just confirmed the Times' scoop ... Ironically enough, the memo in fact confirms the necessity of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
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The four-page document released on Friday is at the heart of a firestorm over Donald Trump, Russia and special counsel Robert Mueller. What's in it? ... the memo acknowledges that Papadopoulos, not Page, “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016”.
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according to the memo released Friday by House Intelligence Committee Republicans ... Russia investigation itself — and by extension, special counsel Robert Mueller's probe — was launched from ... 'information' about Papadapoulos, rather than the dossier.
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But the memo doesn't just fail to discredit the investigation into the Trump campaign — it actually confirms its validity. The core of the GOP's argument against the Mueller probe has been that it was based on unsubstantiated allegations gathered by a Clinton operative. The memo suggests this might be true of the Carter Page warrant — but not of the broader investigation.
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Even as Democrats described it as inaccurate, some Republicans quickly cited the memo — released over the objections of the FBI and Justice Department — in their arguments that Mueller's investigation is politically tainted. A closer read presents a far more nuanced picture ... the memo confirms the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign began in July 2016, months before the surveillance warrant was sought, and was “triggered” by information concerning campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
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Baker emphasized that the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the election did not focus on the Trump campaign officials' interactions with Russia until a 'trusted, reliable foreign partner' sent information to the agency that George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide, was interacting with 'a person who claimed to have email dirt on Hillary Clinton... The important thing to remember...was the case was about Russia.... It was about Russia, period, full stop. That was the focus of the investigation. When the Papadopoulos information comes across our radar screen, it's coming across in the sense that we were always looking at Russia.
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