President Donald Trump says a lot of outrageous stuff, like, for example, implying that NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem should be kicked out of the country. But the latest rabbit hole he’s dived down is far more serious. The president has spent much of the last week egging on the feverish conspiracy theory that the FBI and other denizens of the “deep state” were so intent on electing Hillary Clinton that they embedded spies in his campaign, with the latest in his #SPYGATE tweets claiming that the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, admitted to as much.
Here is the actual exchange that appears to have prompted Mr. Trump’s claim, from an appearance by Mr. Clapper on “The View”:
Joy Behar: “Was the FBI spying on Trump’s campaign?”
James Clapper: “No, they were not.”
Mr. Clapper went on to say the FBI was “spying” — a word he said he dislikes in this context — on what the Russians were doing to try to influence the election, and that led them to a few Trump campaign aides. Specifically, according to reporting in the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere, the FBI directed an informant to meet with three advisers in the Trump campaign after receiving evidence that they had suspicious contacts with Russians.
The informant, Stefan A. Halper, a London-based American academic and veteran of several Republican administrations, did not “inflitrate” the campaign. He had no role in it whatsoever. What he did was to pursue contacts with Trump foreign policy advisers George Papadopolous (who has subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his Russia contacts) and Carter Page (who had been on the FBI’s radar for his Russia contacts long before the Trump campaign began) and with former campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis (who said his meeting with Mr. Halper was like a chat between professors in a faculty lounge and centered on China, not Russia).
Biggest scandal in American political history? Not so much.
President Trump’s efforts to distort this story out of all proportion is reminiscent of the granddaddy of all the alternative facts he has served up during his presidency: the claim that President Barack Obama had ordered the tapping of his phones in Trump Tower. The kernel of factual basis there was that some people associated with the Trump campaign had been recorded as part of routine surveillance on foreign officials, much as in this case, some campaign members were contacted pursuant to an investigation into Russian election meddling. Then, Mr. Trump tweeted out his accusations in a seeming attempt to distract attention from the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation. Now, he seems to be fanning the flames of #SPYGATE to distract from the ongoing special counsel investigation and the mounting legal troubles for his associates. And now, as then, he has demanded an investigation into allegations that he, essentially, made up.
There is no indication that Mr. Halper’s efforts were at all consequential or that they advanced the intelligence community’s knowledge of Russia’s attempts to influence the presidential election in any way. But what Mr. Trump is doing has enormous consequences. He is demanding that the Department of Justice investigate an investigation into his campaign — a break with all manner of precedent relating to the DOJ’s independence. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has attempted to defuse the situation, but it still poses great peril. The president is seeking to put his own self-preservation ahead of the rule of law, and for that reason, his blatant lie about James Clapper earns the sad distinction of the latest Alternative Fact of the Week.