President Trump has repeatedly said that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was "a coup." According to the president and his supporters, individuals in the F.B.I. formed the heart of a nefarious conspiracy to take him down by engaging in rogue "spying" on the his campaign.
New details from reporting on the counterintelligence inquiry in summer 2016 lays out how a government investigator posing as a research assistant met with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, to better understand any potential Trump campaign "links to Russia." Brad Parscale, the 2020 campaign manager for the president, said it's further proof that the "real scandal was the Obama administration using the Justice Department to spy on a political adversary's campaign."
Talk of a "coup" has also been a staple of Fox News commentary: the "the biggest scandal of our time," Maria Bartiromo said, "the coup that failed."
Attorney General William Barr said that spying on any political campaign was a "big deal." On Wednesday, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri coaxed the attorney general to go even further, persuading him to agree that the surveillance of the Trump campaign was "unprecedented."
The president's spying complaint focuses on two investigative techniques — the contact undercover investigators made with the Trump campaign and the use of electronic surveillance on certain Trump campaign officials.
But the fact is, while these tactics may never have been used in the investigation of a presidential candidate before, they are hardly unusual. Indeed, they are common procedures when undertaking covert public corruption investigations.
Undercover investigators usually take one of two possible forms — a confidential human source or an undercover agent. Confidential human sources are ordinary citizens who act as information gatherers for law enforcement organizations like the F.B.I. They have ordinary lives and live openly in the community, working on the side to assist law enforcement investigations. Their conduct is governed by extensive F.B.I. policies. Undercover agents are trained law enforcement personnel who adopt false identities to keep sensitive investigations secret. The use of undercover agents in any investigation is also subject to strict regulations and ones involving possible criminal conduct by domestic government officials or foreign governments must be approved by F.B.I. headquarters.
Both confidential human sources and undercover agents make contact with subjects of an investigation and elicit information without revealing their connection to law enforcement. They are key in counterintelligence investigations because they can help collect real-time information about the activity of foreign powers that individuals might be wary to share with investigators. They also serve a unique role in public corruption investigations because proving white-collar crime often hinges on the hard-to-prove element of intent. Unguarded statements to confidential informants can provide prosecutors with the intent evidence that they would otherwise be lacking.
In Mr. Trump's case, the F.B.I. started its investigation in July 2016, after Australia informed the United States that Mr. Papadopoulos claimed that Russia had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. The F.B.I. used an undercover investigator — the research assistant, who went by the name Azra Turk — and Stefan Halper, a professor in Britain and longtime informant, to make contact with Mr. Papadopoulos (Mr. Halper also made contact with two other campaign officials, Sam Clovis and Carter Page).
In light of the information coming from Australia, this conduct was actually a relatively unintrusive way to start an investigation.
Contrast that with the investigation of Mayor Tony Mack of Trenton. In 2010, an F.B.I. informant met with one of Mr. Mack's supporters and offered cash in exchange for Mr. Mack's help in obtaining property to build a parking garage. Mr. Mack was eventually convicted of six federal charges. Similarly, in 2014, the F.B.I. used the chief of staff to New York State Senator George D. Maziarz to gather information on him. The F.B.I. used an informant to take down former congressman William Jefferson and one to prosecute the Hoboken mayor Peter Camarano. And in the investigation into the congressional campaign of Connecticut State Representative Chris Donovan, federal agents employed an informant and an undercover agentand staked out a political convention.
In its investigation into Russia's potential connection to the Trump campaign, the F.B.I. obtained warrants to surveil the communications of Mr. Page and the campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The F.B.I. sought the wiretaps from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, rather than a district court, because the applications contained sensitive foreign intelligence information. Ordinarily, to get to the FISA Court, the agents prepare an application and send it for review to the supervisor, the chief division counsel, the special agent in charge and then a unit supervisor at F.B.I. headquarters. It then goes to the National Security Division at the Justice Department for a verification procedure before arriving at a FISA judge who does a review of the material to see whether surveillance is warranted. In Mr. Page's case, most of the judges reviewing his application were actually Republican appointees.
The process of obtaining a FISA warrant to wiretap is slightly different from the process used in a district court, but the authorized surveillance technique — in other words, the "spying" — is the same. Again, this is a common investigatory method when the government can show probable cause to a court. The F.B.I. wiretapped Representative Rick Renzi in an extortion and racketeering investigation. Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was wiretapped trying to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat. Associates of Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport, Conn., were also secretly recorded in a wide-ranging corruption investigation.
The attorney general's response to Senator Hawley had the unique quality of being simultaneously true and misleading. They were both playing a linguistic sleight of hand. We've had only 45 presidents and 58 presidential elections in history. It should be no surprise — and should in fact be a relief — that federal investigators had never needed to use such techniques to investigate a presidential campaign.
But make no mistake, in the broad context of high-profile public corruption investigations, the methods used against Mr. Trump's associates are by no means an anomaly.
What is anomalous is the effort by some Republicans to undermine legitimate counterintelligence concerns. After Mr. Barr's testimony, Senator Hawley tweeted that "the F.B.I. spied on @realDonaldTrump and launched multiyear investigations" because "unelected progressive elites in our government have nothing but contempt for" Trump voters.
The "spying" rhetoric casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the Russia probe and the F.B.I. and undermines the special counsel's findings. This is useful misdirection: Mr. Mueller's conclusion that the Trump "campaign anticipated receiving derogatory documents and information from official Russian sources that could assist candidate Trump's electoral prospects" challenges Mr. Barr's declaration that the evidence showed "no collusion." In that light, it's not hard to see who's serving the truth and who's serving the president.
Liam Brennan is a former federal prosecutor and head of the Public Corruption Task Force in Connecticut. This opinion piece appeared in The New York Times on May 3, 2019.
May 4, 2019
Voices4America Post Script. The next time you hear #DerangedDonald or any of the #DerangedDonaldFanClub quacking about spies looking at his 2016 campaign, remind them that Intelligence would do that to any grou with 140+ contacts with a foreign enemy. #TrumpTreason #impeachTrump