Why the FBI Had to ‘Spy’ On the Trump Campaign

There’s plenty in Andrew McCarthy’s new National Review piece Yes, the FBI Was Investigating the Trump Campaign When It Spied that I agree with even though overall it is one of the most misleading, poisonous and dangerous documents that I’ve seen in a long time. McCarthy’s effort is aimed at sustaining the president’s most recent #SpyGate gambit, which basically can be summed up as an allegation that he’s completely innocent of any improper relationship with the Russians and that the Deep State has been hounding him with a partisan witch hunt of an investigation that began during the campaign when it improperly infiltrated his operation.

When discussing this issue, there’s a risk that you’ll get bogged down in an argument over semantics like the difference between a spy and an informant, or being the target of an investigation and being a subject of an investigation, or whether there’s a meaningful distinction between examining the behavior of numerous officials of a campaign and examining the campaign itself, or whether you can open a counterintelligence investigation of a campaign without investigating the candidate. McCarthy makes great use of these semantic questions, but most of them are ultimately sideshows.

To prove my point, I’m willing to concede the basic truthfulness of his headline. When the FBI used Stefan Halper to establish contact with Sam Clovis, George Papadopoulos and Carter Page it was using the tools of espionage (i.e., spying), and what they were looking for was evidence that the campaign was in any way involved in the hacking and subsequent distribution of electronic communications from Democratic organizations and officials. Potentially, this involvement could have included Donald Trump, so he was at least a subject of the investigation as well as the biggest possible target.

To be sure, there are plenty of people who are not willing to concede all of these points and they have good reasons for waging these fights over the meaning of words. Once we move beyond those debates, however, we can see more clearly.

In discussing these issues I have to find somewhere on the timeline to begin, and I can think of no better place than July 31, 2016, which is the day the FBI acknowledges that they formally opened a counterintelligence operation into possible coordination between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian interference operation into our upcoming election.

This wasn’t something they took on lightly, and in naming the investigation Crossfire Hurricane they were perhaps acknowledging that they knew they were wading into Hell.  But they had received credible information from the Australians that Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had been aware the Russians had obtained thousands of Clinton emails prior to them being released.  There were three reasons the FBI needed to follow-up on that lead. The first was that, while they had evidence that implicated the Russians in the hacks they didn’t have anything that could be called incontrovertible proof. And, even if they were confident that Russians were involved, anything that might help them understand how the operation was organized and authorized would be vital for both investigatory and prophylactic reasons.  Confirming that Papadopolous had foreknowledge and learning how he obtained it was therefore of paramount importance from both a legal and a national security point of view.

The second reason the FBI needed to look carefully at Papadopoulos was to learn if he had shared what he knew not only in a drunken exchange with an Australian diplomat but also with members of the Trump campaign. And, if he had shared that information with people in the campaign, the FBI needed to know why no one in the campaign had told the FBI about it. If the campaign was not reporting it, perhaps they were instead seeking to exploit the crime to their own advantage.  And that would open campaign officials, and perhaps the candidate himself up to potential blackmail, as the Russians could always threaten to reveal what they had done.  Even if Trump had no awareness that some people in his orbit were coordinating with the hackers, he’d presumably want to know if people on his team had been compromised.

And that gets to the third reason for looking at Papadopoulos. If he was in some way compromised or even working as an agent of a foreign power, that would be a national security threat given his position as a foreign policy adviser who might reasonably be expected to land an important position in any future Trump administration. These were all valid counterintelligence concerns.

Now, the counterintelligence investigation wasn’t formally opened until July 31, 2016, but Stefan Halper made his first contact with Carter Page on July 11 when Page made an appearance at a Cambridge University symposium.  This discrepancy in the timeline has been used to raise doubts about when the FBI first began investigating the Trump campaign for possible collusion.  I definitely understand the suspicion here, but I think it’s probably overblown.

Rather than completely reinvent the wheel on this portion of the controversy, I’d like to refer you to the piece I wrote on May 27: On Stefan Halper and Carter Page. The short version is that Carter Page had long been of interest to the FBI’s counterintelligence team, dating back at least to 2013 when they approached him and told him he was being recruited by Russian spies. He was belligerent in his response and the FBI ultimately obtained a FISA warrant against him because they had credible suspicions that he had actually been successfully recruited. When Trump named Carter Page as one of a small handful of his foreign policy advisers, most people had no idea who he was. However, the FBI’s counterintelligence team must have felt much differently about his appointment given what they knew about him.

When Carter Page arrived in Cambridge in July 2016, he had just departed Moscow where he had spent three days. During that time he gave a speech at the New Economic School where he was critical of his own country and parroted Vladimir Putin’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy. It’s unclear how closely he was monitored on this trip, but by his own admission he met with several members of the Russian parliament and Russia’s deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich. He also admitted watching a soccer match in a bar with Andrey Baranov, the head of investor relations at Rosneft, a gigantic state-run Russian energy company. During this lunch, Page admitted that he and Baranov discussed business deals and sanctions relief.

It seems reasonable to surmise that the counterintelligence team was watching Page during the Moscow leg of his trip and that they knew in advance that he would be traveling from there to Cambridge where Stefan Halper would be attending the same symposium. Halper undoubtedly serves as eyes and ears to the U.S. intelligence community on the Cambridge campus and has for a long time. So, asking him to befriend Page at the symposium was a simple matter of using an asset already in place.

It might be difficult to keep these things separate in retrospect, but there was a big distinction between the situation with Page on July 11 and the situation with Papadopoulos on July 31 that caused the launch of a formal counterintelligence investigation. Carter Page was not suspected of having anything to do with the hacking. He was just suspicious on his own merits, and had been for at least three years. The counterintelligence team, in early July, had no reason to believe that the Trump campaign was aware that Page had been under scrutiny or might be acting as a foreign agent. In this sense, Trump really should have been glad to have the FBI looking out for the security and integrity of his campaign.

However, once Papadopoulos’s foreknowledge of the hacks entered the scene, the picture changed dramatically. Both he and Page had been recruited by Sam Clovis to serve among a very small handful of announced foreign policy advisers to Trump. This created a triangle that needed to be explored. Since Halper had already established a relationship with Page, he was the logical person to explore this triangle. He used his connection to Page to make contact with Clovis and he used his contact with Clovis to make contact with Papadopoulos. As far as we know, he didn’t try to recruit them or steal documents from them—things we associate with “spying”—but he did talk to them and report back. With Page and Clovis, he seems to have done nothing that aroused suspicion but with Papadopoulos he tried to get him to admit that he knew about the Russian hacking. Information he gathered on Page was ultimately used in a successful application for a FISA warrant, which was also supplemented by the Steele Dossier that had reported on some of Page’s activities while he was in Moscow.

All of this is outrageous to McCarthy, but what he never does is offer us some alternative that the FBI should have taken rather than explore this triangle. When a campaign names someone as a foreign policy adviser who has been suspected but ultimately cleared of being a foreign agent, and then that adviser travels to that country and acts as Page did, should the FBI not revisit their prior investigation before running to the campaign to warn them and besmirch that adviser’s name? When a foreign policy adviser to a campaign has foreknowledge of a crime and that crime is not reported, should the FBI not try to figure out why it wasn’t reported before tipping off possible co-conspirators within that campaign? When a key member of a campaign is known to have hired two foreign policy advisers with suspicious connections to a hostile foreign adversary and there is some reason to suspect criminal activity involving that foreign adversary, should the FBI not try to figure out how and why that happened?

It shouldn’t need to be said, but the problem here is that none of these things should have been happening. The FBI counterintelligence team is supposed to protect campaigns from foreign influence but that’s hard to do when all the signs are that the campaign is welcoming foreign help.  It’s easy to say that the FBI should keep their mitts off of anything related to elections, but they can’t ignore campaigns and protect them at the same time.

One thing to keep in mind here, too, is that we didn’t learn about any of this until after we had voted. If we had known even a little about this investigation it could have certainly changed public opinion enough to have changed the outcome of the election. If the FBI had been intent on damaging Trump’s prospects, there would have been leaks, but the FBI went so far as to lie to the New York Times in the last week of the campaign by denying that Trump’s campaign was under scrutiny.

It’s boring at this point to mention that Hillary Clinton didn’t get the same consideration from James Comey and the FBI, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It seems to a lot of people that it’s not fair that the FBI thought the electorate had a right to know that Clinton was “extremely reckless” with classified information and that there were Clinton emails on pervert Anthony’s Weiner’s laptop but that the electorate had no right to know that a Trump foreign policy adviser had foreknowledge of the Russian hacks.

It seems to a lot of people like this disparity alone explains why Trump won and Clinton lost, making the FBI’s election tampering at least as consequential as anything the Russians did.

What doesn’t seem outrageous is that the FBI investigated Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Sam Clovis.  In light of subsequent events, they were also justified in investigating Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone.  And it’s not just me saying this. This is also what Marco Rubio and Trey Gowdy have said. So, when McCarthy blasts Rubio and Gowdy for their cluelessness in dismissing the #SpyGate conspiracy theory, he’s really insisting rather that only some facts in this case should matter, while others are completely ignored.

There wasn’t and still isn’t any way to investigate the Russian theft of electronic communications and general meddling in the campaign without also investigating the people in the Trump campaign who had direct contact with the Russians.  We can all wish that those connections didn’t exist and that the FBI could have done a clean investigation with no monitoring of campaign officials, but the connections did exist and still do.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.