President Donald Trump’s approach to the Russia investigation seems to be: “If at first you don’t deceive, try, try again.”
On Wednesday, he coined the phrase “spygate” to describe the false claim that the FBI spied on his presidential campaign in 2016.
“We’re calling it spygate,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn, inviting another comparison to the original “-gate” that brought down another president, Watergate.
The claim is based on the reported use of an FBI informant during the campaign who spoke with three campaign officials to suss out whether the Trump team was compromised by the Kremlin or potentially working with it.
Stefan Halper spoke with campaign advisors George Papadopoulos and Carter Page in London where he is an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge. Halper also spoke to Sam Clovis, a campaign policy advisor who worked with the foreign policy team, in the United States.
Clovis said their conversation was about China, not Russia. Page told the Washington Post he couldn’t even remember what they discussed.
And Papadopoulos—who told an Australian diplomat in spring 2016 that Russia had “dirt” in the form of “thousands of emails” of Hillary Clinton—was asked by Halper to write a paper about oil fields in the Middle East, according to emails. Halper may have asked Papadopoulos whether he knew or was involved in Russian hacking of Democratic emails. (When asked by the FBI about what he told the Australian diplomat, Papadopoulos lied.)
Halper never joined or attempted to join the Trump campaign.
And far from trying to infiltrate the campaign, the FBI reportedly shied away from asking it about interactions with Russia for fear the voting public would learn there was an open investigation into Trump’s team.
“Spygate” is the latest effort by Trump and his allies to discredit the Russia investigation, all the while they ignore or downplay the guilty pleas, indictments, and careers it has already cost.
Instead, every time the investigation advances in the public eye, Trump counters with lies, exaggerations, or slander.
In March 2017, after the New York Times reported that communications were intercepted between Russian agents and Trump campaign officials, Trump tweeted “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
The subtext was that the Obama administration engaged in political espionage under the pretext of the Russia investigation. Therefore the investigation was irrevocably tainted, Trump and his allies claimed.
After no evidence was found supporting Trump’s claim, he hinted he would deliver proof to the House intelligence committee.
“We will be submitting things before the committee very soon that has not been submitted as of yet,” he told Tucker Carlson on March 15.
Then wire “tap” became “unmasking.”
Days after Trump’s promise, White House officials gave information to House intel committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes that he said showed Obama officials had improperly revealed the identity of U.S. persons incidentally surveilled. Trump even accused former national security adviser Susan Rice of breaking the law.
Except Michael Flynn’s name wasn’t concealed in phone calls with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., according to former acting attorney general Sally Yates. While Rice said she did order unmasking of some Trump officials, it was to find out why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York during the presidential transition.
“I didn't hear anything to believe that she did anything illegal," Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican on the House intel committee, told CNN following the revelations.
So much for a “Watergate-style scandal,” as National Review put it then.
Following Comey’s firing, Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to oversee the investigation. And right on cue, Trump privately drummed up another scandal: Mueller was too “conflicted” to investigate Trump because he was interviewed to be FBI director before his appointment; he worked for the same law firm that represented Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Mueller once had a dispute about fees at Trump’s golf club where he was a member.
Trump was even moved to order Mueller’s firing based on these conflicts until the White House counsel supposedly threatened to quit and Trump backed down.
Publicly, Trump’s allies like Newt Gingrich modified this line of attack and accused Mueller’s team of being crypto-liberals hell bent on destroying the Republican president because several had donated to Democrats.
Trump went public with that line in May 2018, saying: “So you have all these investigators; they’re Democrats. In all fairness, Bob Mueller worked for Obama for eight years.”
Mueller is a registered Republican in the District of Columbia who served in several Republican administrations and donated to Republican candidates.
After the “investigators are Democrats” attack petered out, Trump’s men in Congress seized on a variation: the FBI agents investigating Trump were part of a pro-Clinton conspiracy.
“Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society," FBI lawyer Lisa Page wrote to senior FBI agent Peter Strzok the day after Trump won.
Sen. Ron Johnson seized on this as a smoking gun.
“The secret society—we have an informant talking about a group holding secret meetings off-site,” the Wisconsin Republican told Fox News. “There's so much smoke here, there's so much suspicions.”
There was no secret society: it was a joke between lovers.
Then came the biggest faux-scandal of all: Democratic dirt led the Obama Justice Department to spy on Carter Page, the Trump advisor.
This time the deceit was furnished by Nunes and Republicans on the House intel committee, who demanded an application for a secret surveillance warrant, over the strenuous objections of the FBI and Justice Department.
Trump allowed the “Nunes memo” to be declassified for public release and said after it “totally vindicates” him.
Except it didn’t. Contrary to Republican claims, the Justice Department’s warrant application did not rely all that much on ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier and did disclose that the dossier was indirectly paid for by political opponents of Trump, i.e., Democrats.
While Trump and some Republicans keep striking at the roots of the Russia investigation, it has branched out to strangle Trump’s former national security adviser and his former campaign chairman, crept into the White House, and sprouted into investigations of Trump’s business and his longtime fixer.
Whatever the next non-scandal is, it won’t stop the investigation.