Cutting through the “Spygate” noise

In recent days, the President and conservative media have peddled a theory that the FBI embedded a “spy” within the Trump campaign on the eve of the 2016 election. Their theory is that the intelligence community – the so-called Deep State, with the support of then President Obama- used this person to destroy the Trump campaign from the inside and has since spurred the phony investigation which now is being used to frame President Trump.

Watching the ensuing partisan debate unfold, I find it to be big on sound bytes but thin in analysis. “Spygate” (not to be confused with the New England Patriots’ scandal in 2008) has become the latest in a wave of exaggerated stories narrated by right-wing media that aims to undermine the special counsel’s investigation, and due to our short attention span, it’s working. That the facts are a bit complicated only makes them more easily conflated.

Philip Bump of the Washington Post has published the best tic/toc to date, which I recommend reading to get all the facts. But I think I can distill it in 250 words. Read carefully.

If “Spygate” were a book, I’d call it the tale of two professors. On March 14, 2016, Joseph Mifsud, a London-based professor who was director of the London Academy of Diplomacy, met a young Trump foreign policy advisor named George Papadopoulos in Italy. Two months later, Mifsud tells Papadopoulos that the Russians have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton – “they have thousands of emails.” That is information that Papadopoulos shares soon thereafter with an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer over drinks.

Two months later – on July 22, 2016 – Wikileaks began releasing emails stolen from the DNC.  The Australians now realize that what Papadopoulos told their diplomat was true, so they tell the FBI, and the investigation begins.

Naturally, Papadopoulos was a focus of the inquiry. So too was Carter Page, who was already on the FBI radar screen. Page had just traveled to Moscow to give a speech, and while there, sent a memo to Trump campaign staff alerting them of the desire of a Russian Deputy Prime Minister to work together.   

Enter professor No. 2.

The confidential source is an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge.  He’s a former White House official from the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations.  His relationship with U.S. intelligence dates back to at least 2012 when he began work with a Pentagon think tank named the Office of Net Assessment. He had recently met Page at a Cambridge University political conference and also had interaction with Sam Clovis and Papadopoulos.  

Let me be clear: this source was never a part of the Trump campaign and was never embedded as a spy. He does appear to have provided the FBI with information about his interactions with the three campaign officials as the FBI was trying to investigation Russian meddling in the American election.  

Allow me to make some comments. First, ask yourself this: when contacted by the representatives of an ally – Australia – and told that a presidential campaign operative had accurately predicted a hostile government’s document drop, what should the FBI have done?  Run it down, of course.

Second, as noted by Aaron Blake of the Washington Post, the reason these facts don’t make sense as a “Spygate” conspiracy is that if the aim were to undermine the Trump campaign, why did this all remain a secret until after the election?  Why, when one week before the election, the New York Times reported that “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government?” If this was a Deep State conspiracy to deny Trump the White House, this was the time to drop that bomb. But that didn’t happen.

Finally, what it all suggests is that to the president’s media supporters, this is not about evidence. It is about inoculation. The aim is to prepare for a scenario whereby special counsel Robert Mueller gives to Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein a report outlining a colorable case for obstruction of justice that then goes to Congress for debate, where half the country will already be of a mindset that the report is the product of a flawed investigation.  

That possibility sounded frightening enough for me to conduct a 25-minute segment just explaining the basic facts of the “Spygate” conspiracy on Thursday’s radio program, a segment on my CNN show, and this commentary here. Because the facts matter.