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“Spygate,” the false allegation that the FBI had a spy in the Trump campaign, explained

Stefan Halper, a professor and FBI informant, didn’t “spy” on Trump. Here’s what actually happened.

trump, spygate, russia, fbi psy Win McNamee/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Donald Trump claims to have uncovered one of the biggest spying scandals in American history — and that the FBI, not Russia, is the culprit.

His allegation centers on a retired university professor in Britain named Stefan Halper. Halper, an American who taught for years at Cambridge University in the UK, has been outed in the press as a secret FBI “informant” who met with several Trump campaign advisers in mid-2016 at the bureau’s behest. The goal of these meetings was allegedly to assess whether there were any real links between the Trump campaign and Russia, enough to fuel a wider investigation.

Trump and Republicans say that Halper was a spy planted in the Trump campaign by the Obama administration “for political purposes” — in other words, to hurt Trump’s electoral chances. The president has dubbed this “SPYGATE,” calling it a “scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!”

The reality is much less exciting.

Based on what has been publicly reported, legal experts say that Halper’s work was most likely part of a legitimate counterintelligence operation targeted at Russia’s election interference campaign and not any kind of political attack on Trump. Barbara McQuade, a former US district attorney, told Vox that the notion that the FBI was fishing for some kind of dirt on Trump is “baseless.”

The scandal here isn’t that Trump was “spied on.” It’s that the FBI’s legitimate investigation into Russia is becoming a cudgel for the president to attack the Justice Department publicly and undermine its independence.

Who is Stefan Halper, and what did he actually do?

trump, spy, fbi russia
Stefan Halper.
Wellesley College

Stefan Halper is an interesting man, someone who has long had one foot in Republican politics and the other in the intelligence community. He worked for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford on domestic policy, and then served as a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, focusing on the intersection of military affairs and politics.

He also worked on presidential campaigns for Reagan and George H.W. Bush, work that got him in hot water for, interestingly, allegedly spying on President Jimmy Carter’s campaign. As a profile in the Washington Post puts it:

Aides to Reagan, including Halper, were accused of having spied on Carter’s campaign and obtaining private documents that Carter was using to prepare for a debate. Some Reagan White House officials later alleged that Halper had used former CIA agents to run an operation against Carter. Halper called the reports at the time “absolutely false” and has long denied the accusations.

After his career in American politics ended, Halper remade himself as an academic, teaching and writing about foreign affairs from his perch at Cambridge. There, he led something called the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, an annual forum in which intelligence professionals from across the Western Hemisphere, both current and retired, meet to discuss the ins and outs of spying. Interestingly, Halper stepped down from his role in the seminar in 2016, telling the Financial Times that there was “unacceptable Russian influence on the group.”

This deep familiarity with both Republican politics and the world of international spycraft may have been what made Halper an ideal informant for the FBI during the 2016 campaign.

On July 7 of that year, Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page traveled to Moscow to give a lecture. Page had long been on the FBI’s radar due to his contacts with Russia; in 2013, Russian intelligence reached out to him directly in a short-lived effort to recruit him as an intelligence asset. Less than a week later, Halper met Page at a conference on US foreign policy and the 2016 election held in Cambridge. The two men struck up an email correspondence.

It’s not clear whether that initial meeting was done at the FBI’s behest. It’s possible that these two men just had a lot in common and established a sort of friendship; Halper is reportedly known for being a major networker.

But on July 31, about three weeks after Halper and Page first met, the FBI began a counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to infiltrate the Trump campaign and alter the outcome of the 2016 election. As part of this investigation, they asked Halper to reach out to two Trump advisers — Page and George Papadopoulos — to see what he could learn about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Between August 1 and the November 2016 election, Halper was in regular contact with those two men. In September, he met with Papadopoulos in London — the pretext was Halper paying Papadopoulos to write a paper on Middle Eastern energy markets — and asked him about Trump contacts with the Kremlin.

Papadopoulos denied any knowledge of Russian outreach to the Trump team, which was a lie: Papadopoulos had drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat about Russia offering him “dirt” on Hillary Clinton back in May, which led to the FBI beginning its counterintelligence investigation in the first place.

Halper also met with a third Trump foreign policy adviser, Sam Clovis; according to Clovis, they discussed China policy, not Russia. It’s not clear if this meeting was also at the FBI’s behest, or if what they discussed was relayed back to the FBI.

And that’s it. There is no evidence so far that Halper attempted to join the Trump campaign and act as a double agent; nor is there evidence that he conducted any kind of illegal snooping on Page or Papadopoulos. We also don’t know whether Halper’s meetings yielded anything useful to the FBI: Papadopoulos seems to have stonewalled him, and the contents of his conversations with Page aren’t yet public knowledge.

Based on what we know, at least, it’s not clear how significant a part of the Russia investigation this was — or how the president could justify his claim that this is “one of the biggest political scandals in history.”

The phony case that Halper was “spying” on Trump

If you look at Trump’s rhetoric on the Halper case, you notice a few repeated assertions that aren’t borne out by the facts we currently have. Trump continually insists that Halper was a “spy” informing to the FBI from inside his campaign, and that Halper’s contacts at the bureau were using him to spy on Trump for political purposes.

In fact, Halper is a longtime Republican who never worked for the Trump campaign. The FBI appeared to have asked Halper to make contact with Page and Papadopoulos after it had reason to believe each of these men was in contact with the Russian government (the trip to Moscow in Page’s case, and the conversation with the Australian in Papadopoulos’s).

So where do Trump’s misconceptions come from? They appear to originate with a May 12 article written by National Review legal analyst Andrew McCarthy, who appeared on Fox & Friends to discuss his theory just before Trump tweeted about the Halper case for the first time (the above tweet).

In his article, McCarthy flatly asserts that “the FBI had a ‘human source’ — i.e., a spy — inside the Trump campaign as the 2016 presidential race headed into its stretch run.” In his Fox & Friends appearance, McCarthy amped this up, asserting “there is probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.”

On Fox, McCarthy also spun this into a tale of politically motivated persecution of Trump. The argument rests on the distinction between an FBI counterintelligence investigation — an inquiry into a foreign power’s efforts to spy on the US government — and an FBI criminal investigation, which is an effort to investigate whether any federal laws were broken. McCarthy argues that it’s easier for the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation than a criminal probe, which — at least in theory — requires some reason to believe that illegal activity is ongoing, called a “criminal predicate,” to start up.

McCarthy says the entire counterintelligence investigation into Russia was a scam, a front for what the FBI really wanted to do: launch a criminal investigation into Donald Trump. “They didn’t have a criminal predicate to investigate the people in the Trump campaign they did. They used their counterintelligence powers as a pretext to investigate the Trump campaign in hope of making a criminal case,” he said on Fox.

McCarthy’s assertion about a spy “in the campaign” is clearly incorrect; Halper was never part of the Trump campaign. What’s more, independent experts find his overarching legal theory — that the counterintelligence investigation was a front for a “witch hunt” targeting Trump — dubious.

“Counterintelligence investigations aren’t what you open when you don’t have evidence to open a criminal investigation,” says former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. “They’re not a lesser or greater version of each other. They’re different and serve different purposes.”

In this case, that “different purpose” could not be clearer. The FBI had reason to believe that Russia, a hostile state, had launched an intelligence operation aimed at altering the outcome of the US election. They also had evidence that part of Russia’s campaign involved reaching out to certain members of the Trump campaign at the time of Halper’s actions.

Page’s visit to Moscow was a matter of public record. The FBI knew about Papadopoulos’s bragging about Russia providing dirt on Clinton, thanks to the Australian government. Given those facts, experts say it would have been irresponsible not to launch a counterintelligence probe that targeted Papadopoulos and Page.

“The FBI has a duty to conduct counterintelligence investigations, [and] investigations usually involve foreign governments and agents of foreign governments,” McQuade, the other former federal prosecutor, explains. “If the FBI believed that Russia was trying to recruit campaign staffers, they had a duty to investigate that.”

But regardless of the merits of McCarthy’s argument, it’s now become the official position of the White House. Trump has even expanded on the theory in his tweets, arguing Monday night that Halper was a paid operative working for Clinton.

There is no evidence that Halper was paid some extravagant fee for his work as an informant, and it’s not clear what Trump is referring to. The best guess is that he’s talking about a series of payments from the Department of Defense to Halper and some of his associates totaling more than $1 million, but these were payment for consulting work on defense and foreign policy issues that had nothing to do with the Trump campaign. They began in 2012.

Trump is pushing a narrative on this meeting largely spun out of one right-wing commentator’s theory, one that bears very little relation to observable reality.

Halper is a powerful weapon in the Trump-GOP war on the Russia investigation

In some ways, though, it doesn’t matter if Trump is wrong about the Halper situation. The very perception that he was spied on is reshaping American politics in some very troubling ways.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has been pushing the Justice Department to release all documents related to Halper to his office. The Justice Department has refused, citing risks to FBI sources and methods. That’s a reasonable concern, given that Nunes has a track record of abusing classified information to make it seem like the FBI is going after the Trump administration. Nunes, in response, has subpoenaed the documents.

On Monday, Trump dragged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to the White House to discuss his fury over l’affaire Halper. Trump seems to have convinced them to give in to a modified version of Nunes’s demands. On Thursday, Wray, Coates, and another Justice Department official briefed a select group of lawmakers — including Nunes — on Halper’s activities.

Rosenstein has also tasked the DOJ’s inspector general with looking into whether anyone attempted to inappropriately “infiltrate or surveil” Trump’s team back in 2016.

This all suggests that these factually overblown claims are politically quite potent.

The FBI and Department of Justice are suffering a serious erosion of credibility among Republicans; many of the party’s leaders and most of its voters seem to buy president’s line that the entire Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.” The allegation that they spied on Trump is explosive, and they need to be sensitive to how they’d be perceived if they simply dismissed the president out of hand.

The result, then, is that Trump now has a tool for leveraging influence over the Justice Department — one he’s already deployed effectively. The angry tweets and dubbing a non-scandal “Spygate” may seem absurd, but it serves to raise the stakes of the controversy and further discredit any FBI efforts to investigate him.

Trump himself appears to recognized this dynamic, inventing the term “spygate” deliberately to focus the public’s attention. The Associated Press reported on Thursday that “Trump told one ally this week that he wanted ‘to brand’ the informant a ‘spy,’ believing the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public.”

On this, Trump has a point: A ginned-up controversy is about as politically useful to him as a real scandal would be.

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