In a departure from the hands-off approach of past presidents, President Donald Trump has explicitly tried to affect a Department of Justice probe into his campaign. While on Twitter last Sunday, Trump called on the DOJ to investigate whether they or the FBI had surveilled his campaign, and specifically, if anyone affiliated with the Obama administration had ordered surveillance.
I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2018
The tweet was a continuation of a topic from the day before, which referenced reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post that the FBI sent an informant to speak to two former Trump campaign advisers in July 2016 - just 4 months before the November 2016 presidential elections.
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
The president alleges that the informant was a spy, describing the situation as “SPYGATE.”
Let’s unpack this.
How did this start?
"Spygate" begins with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and whether or not Trump himself has obstructed justice.
The Department of Justice launched the Russia investigation in May 2017. Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos reportedly “drunkenly bragged” to an Australian diplomat about conversations with a Russian-linked professor, Joseph Mifsud, who’d told him that Russian President Vladimir Putin had damning information (“thousands of emails,” all hacked) on 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Mifsud, a Maltese national, was most recently a professor at Link Campus University in Rome and was an intermediary between Papadopoulos and senior Russian officials. Mysteriously, Mifsud has been missing since October 2017, the month that a U.S. court document mentioning him was released.
The Australian diplomat informed the U.S., and the investigation began. Papadopoulos was arrested in July 2017 for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia during the campaign. Papadopoulos pled guilty in October 2017, and as of this Wednesday, could soon receive a sentence.
In October, the investigation also initiated a year-long surveillance of another former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. Page was found to have numerous business and ideological ties to Russia, including to Putin himself, but has not been indicted.
Cool. So who’s the informant that spoke to Papadopoulos and Page?
Last week, multiple news sources named the informant as University of Cambridge professor Stefan Halper. The former Cambridge professor worked for the Nixon, Reagan, and H.W. Bush campaigns and ran a yearly seminar for intelligence service officials.
Did the DOJ or FBI actually send him in “for political purposes”?
They appear to have acted by the rulebook. The New York Times reported that the FBI sent the informant in after obtaining evidence of Papadopoulos’ and Page’s suspicious, Russian-linked contacts.
Are the DOJ and FBI independent entities? Can Trump order them to do things? Did they?
These organizations are supposed to be nonpartisan. The Associated Press emphasized the FBI director’s 10-year term and the general ban on communication between White House officials and DOJ lawyers.
In demanding to know the informant’s identity, Trump’s private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani said, “I mean, he’s got to clean house in his agency. If there was an informant, we’re entitled to know it.” Regardless of Halper’s identity, there remains that the DOJ and FBI are not “his” and should not be under presidential control.
However, according to tweets quoted by Vox, Trump may have the Constitutional authority to demand that investigation. The DOJ responded, asking its internal watchdog, the Inspector General, to include the president’s questions in an ongoing inquiry – one investigating whether the DOJ’s use of the Steele Dossier, paid for by the Democratic Party, was valid enough to justify surveillance of Page.
What is Trump trying to accomplish?
The Russian investigation has officially been open for a year, as of May 2018. Trump and his allies seem to be ramping up their criticism of the probe, hoping to discredit it enough to where it will close. Some media sources suggest that the Trump administration is trying to “insulate the president from the [investigation’s] findings.”
So… where does the Obama administration come into this?
Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI “SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.” Andrew McCarthy says, “There’s probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.” If so, this is bigger than Watergate!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 17, 2018
Good question. No media outlet has explicitly tackled this, though many drew comparisons to Trump’s March 2017 accusation against former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower before his presidential victory in November 2016. It’s unclear why Obama, as a second-term president, would order the DOJ or FBI to infiltrate the Trump campaign. No evidence of surveillance has surfaced to date.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller are also all Republicans, though in their current roles, they are expected to behave independently of party politics. To piece together the Obama administration’s role in this, perhaps try your hand at reading this far-right, conspiracy theory article from The National Review.