Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The president of the United States is seizing on vague news reports to allege a vast political conspiracy against him, demanding an investigation, and searching for vindication.
Of course you’ve heard this—it’s a trope nearly as old as the Trump administration. The latest recurrence concerns a reported informant who fed information to the FBI about possible Russian interference in the presidential campaign. Wall Street Journal columnist Kim Strassel led the way on the story two weeks ago, and over the weekend The New York Times and The Washington Post added a great deal more detail.
The informant is a retired academic who reportedly spoke to three Trump advisers—Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Sam Clovis—because of federal government concerns about contacts between Russians and Trump advisers. All three have proven to have had curious links to Russia. Papadopoulos met with Joseph Mifsud, a mysterious Russia-linked professor, and also told the Australian ambassador to Britain that the Russians had dirt on the Clinton campaign, launching the FBI’s probe into Russian interference; Papadopoulos has since pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents and is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. Page delivered testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealing a web of contacts in Russia, including apparent mischaracterizations and strange gaps in his memory. Clovis was Papadopoulos’s superviser.
There’s a lot still unknown about the informant, as The Washington Post explains: “It is unclear how he first became involved in the case, the extent of the information he provided and the actions he took to obtain intelligence for the FBI. It is also unknown whether his July 2016 interaction with Page was brokered by the FBI or another intelligence agency.”
That lack of detail has not stopped the president from leaping on the story—indeed, the vagueness has enabled him to make some strong charges:
Reports are there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president. It took place very early on, and long before the phony Russia Hoax became a “hot” Fake News story. If true - all time biggest political scandal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2018
If the FBI or DOJ was infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another campaign, that is a really big deal. Only the release or review of documents that the House Intelligence Committee (also, Senate Judiciary) is asking for can give the conclusive answers. Drain the Swamp!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2018
Indeed, if the FBI or DOJ were infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another, or for other “political purposes,” that would indeed be huge—along the lines of Watergate, as Trump has argued. So far, there is not evidence to back that up.
Hoping to solve that problem, Trump in a tweet on Sunday demanded a DOJ inquiry into “whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes.” Note the turn here: Trump first declared that there was political interference in his campaign, and only second asked for a probe to figure out whether there was political interference in the campaign.
In a rational world, the fact that Trump advisers were in questionable contact with Russians; the fact that federal judges approved surveillance of Page and others; and the multiple indictments and guilty pleas that Mueller has already obtained, just a year into his investigation, would be the dominant story, since it indicates at the very least Russian tampering with the campaign and at the worst willing cooperation between campaign staffers and the Kremlin. The fact that several advisers were so quick to speak to the informant raises questions about vetting and information security on the Trump campaign.
Nor does it make sense that President Obama would have launched a legally and politically risky campaign to interfere with Trump, only to allow Trump to win the election in November.
There is also an irony to Trump politically interfering with the Justice Department to demand an investigation into political interference. (Ben Wittes writes in detail on the request and the dangers that it entails.) But because Trump is perfectly willing to politically interfere with the Justice Department, he seems to assume that his predecessors would have done the same.
It’s important to be on guard against political interference in justice, and Justice, by either party. As I have written, the FBI has historically done much to erode public trust in its behavior, though the bureau’s agency is usually not to either party but very specifically to protecting its own prerogatives. But even without his label-interference-now-and-seek-evidence-later approach, the president has long since forfeited the benefit of the doubt on accusations of political revenge against him.
Trump has repeatedly cried wolf—claiming wiretaps, malicious “unmasking” in intelligence, improper requests for warrants, and now political spying inside his campaign. In the first three cases, each claim has quickly petered out.
In March 2017, Trump made this claim:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
This was an astonishing charge to make, and if true, it would have been a horrifying abuse of power on the part of Barack Obama. But it turned out to be bogus, setting up a pattern that has repeated since. The president does not have the power to order wiretaps. Trump’s claim turned out to be based on speculation filtered through several conservative pundits. And Trump’s own Justice Department declared there had been no such wiretap.
Undeterred, the White House leapt on a claim from Representative Devin Nunes that figures in the Obama administration—perhaps National-Security Adviser Susan Rice—had improperly “unmasked,” or revealed the names, of members of the Trump campaign inadvertently surveilled in conversation with targets of invesitgations. (The names of American persons who are inadvertently surveilled are customarily redacted, but they can be revealed under special request.) It turned out that one reason the White House was so eager to hype the claim was that National Security Council staffers had fed it to Nunes in the first place. In any case, Rice denied the claim, senators of both parties concluded it was without merit, and Trump and his allies have largely dropped it as a talking point.
Then in September, several outlets reported that Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman in the summer of 2016, had been surveilled by the FBI both before and after the election. (Mueller has since indicted Manafort on a range of charges, including massive money-laundering, not connected to the campaign. Manafort says he is innocent.) Some Trump allies argued that the news vindicated Trump, but, as I explained in detail at the time, it did not.
Early this year, the cycle repeated itself again with a memo attributed to Nunes that emerged from the GOP side of the House Intelligence Committee, centering in particular on the process for obtaining a warrant to surveil Page. Trump declassified the memo, clearing the way for its release, and once again argued that the new document vindicated his claims and showed that the entire Russia investigation was a witch hunt. But it quickly became clear that the Nunes memo was full of holes, misrepresentations, and elisions, even before the release of a memo from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee further picked it apart.
Even leaving aside each of these failed vindications, there are plenty of other cases where Trump and his allies have made explosive claims that turned out not to be true. There was the White House’s implication that Trump might have taped his conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey. There were the conflicting stories about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. There were the contradictory accounts of Trump’s reimbursement to Michael Cohen. Over the weekend, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times that Mueller had told the White House that a probe of whether the president obstructed justice would wrap up by September 1. But The Times barely seemed to believe this—“he is apparently seeking to publicly pressure Mr. Mueller,” it reported—and by Monday, other reports were portraying Giuliani’s statement as hogwash.
It’s clear why the president has latched on to each of these examples, despite the wispy evidence. Recognizing his perilous political and legal position, he would like one of them to be true, letting him off the hook. But even recognizing that none of them is all that likely, he and his team are pursuing a strategy to undermine the legitimacy of the Russia investigation, at times effectively ceding the conclusions to Mueller. While many observers see through this tactic, having heard him cry wolf many times before, the argument that the president is the victim of a “deep state” conspiracy resonates with his core supporters.
The catch is that there are enough examples of malfeasance by the FBI over the years that it’s impossible to ever dismiss such claims out of hand. There’s been enough bad acting over the decades that prudence demands a little circumspection, even on the part of those deeply skeptical of the president. Trump, however, feels no such need for circumspection. That’s one reason he keeps making the claims, and the reason his latest play for vindication doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.