President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the FBI planted a “spy” in his campaign has handed his associates a new way to characterize any suspicious interactions they may have had during the election: those interactions, especially those being examined by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, were an FBI setup. Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign abetted a Russian disinformation campaign, and whether the president sought to obstruct that investigation.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post revealed that Roger Stone and Michael Caputo, two former advisers to Trump’s campaign team of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller, were approached during the election by a Russian national who was offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Stone and Caputo told the Post that they believe the man was acting as an informant for the FBI. The wife of another campaign aide now cooperating with Mueller, George Papadopoulos, is telling a similar story: Papadopoulos did nothing without the campaign’s consent, she has said, and was targeted by western agents trying to entrap him.
Retroactively downplaying these potentially inappropriate contacts with foreign nationals by casting them as an FBI set-up fits squarely into a narrative enthusiastically promoted by the president. Trump, a subject of Mueller’s obstruction investigation, has tweeted repeatedly about “Spygate”—a term invented by his allies to describe the FBI’s use of an informant to approach members of his campaign during the election. The FBI, which does not usually publicly discuss ongoing investigations, has not responded to the accusations. The result: Trump and his supporters have been able to minimize their bad publicity and continue to characterize the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.”