What you should know about Trump’s latest ‘spy’ claim

Trump claims "Obama FBI" spied on him using an embedded informant.

Trump claims, once again, that the Obama administration "spied" on him during the 2016 election cycle, tweeting that the FBI had embedded an informant within the campaign to dig up information on him. (CREDIT: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
Trump claims, once again, that the Obama administration "spied" on him during the 2016 election cycle, tweeting that the FBI had embedded an informant within the campaign to dig up information on him. (CREDIT: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

In a tweet Thursday morning, President Trump claimed that the Obama administration and the FBI had “spied” on his campaign during the 2016 presidential race using an “embedded informant.”

“Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI ‘SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT,'” Trump wrote. “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!”

The president appeared to be referring to a column published in the conservative-leaning National Review last week, which claimed that the FBI had placed a spy or “human source” inside the Trump campaign to pass information to federal authorities.

The column doesn’t present any actual evidence to support the allegation, but rather theorizes on why past reporting on the origins of the ongoing Russia investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is incorrect. Contributing editor Andrew McCarthy specifically argues that the narrative of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos leaking information accidentally to a government agent, who then took that information back to the FBI, is wrong.


“Something tells me [Glenn Simpson], the co-founder of Fusion GPS, was dead-on accurate when he testified that Christopher Steele told him the FBI had a ‘human source’ — i.e., a spy — inside the Trump campaign as the 2016 presidential race headed into its stretch run,'” McCarthy writes.

Here, McCarthy is referring to testimony Simpson, whose firm Fusion GPS was hired to compile opposition research on Trump during the 2016 election, gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee in August last year. Fusion GPS ultimately contracted the work out to former MI-6 officer Christopher Steele, the author of the now-infamous (and partially verified) Trump-Russia dossier, which includes allegations of misconduct and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

In his testimony last August, Simpson told committee members that Steele had made contact with the lead FBI agent in Rome during the course of his investigation, and debriefed the bureau at that time on “who his sources were, how he knew certain things,” and discussed “other details based on [the FBI’s] own intelligence.”

“Essentially,” Simpson said at the time, “what [Steele] told me was [the FBI] had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source, and…my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing, and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump campaign.”

McCarthy, citing this exchange in his column on Saturday, claimed that subsequent attempts by Fusion GPS officials to explain Simpson’s comments fell flat.


“Fusion GPS explained to friendly media that [Simpson had] ‘mischaracterized’ the source. He must have been talking about George Papadopoulos — not a ‘human source’ in the sense of willing informant or spy, but a person attached to the campaign whose statements to an Australian diplomat had been passed to the FBI,” McCarthy wrote, referring to a conversation Papadopoulos had at a bar in London in May 2016, in which, after several drinks, the campaign adviser reportedly told former Australian politician Alexander Downer that “Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton” in the form of hacked emails.

McCarthy added, “On further review, I don’t buy this explanation.”

McCarthy — and others in conservative media since his column was published on Saturday — have argued instead that the Papadopoulos-as-informant theory doesn’t hold water for a number of reasons.

McCarthy himself claimed, among other things, that it was more likely “someone from the FBI told Steele in August 2016 — while the investigation was heating up, while the FBI was ramping up its efforts in preparation for seeking surveillance warrants from the FISA court — that the Bureau had an informant.”

Breitbart, in an article on Thursday, argued that the timing of FBI agents being dispatched to speak with Downer about his conversations with Papadopoulos didn’t match up with the agency’s statements about when the investigation into Russian collusion opened.


“Leakers told [The New York Times] that ‘within hours’ of opening the investigation into the Trump campaign on July 31, 2016, the FBI dispatched two agents to London to interview the Australian diplomat who had talked to Papadopoulos, meaning that the investigation had officially opened even before they interviewed him,” the outlet wrote, referencing a Times report published Wednesday. “…Those facts appear to confirm that the FBI had opened the investigation on the Trump campaign based on other information — perhaps the ‘top secret intelligence source.'”

The Times report in question, however, doesn’t establish this theory at all: instead, it provides context for the FBI’s investigation into the collusion allegations, specifically noting:

The F.B.I. obtained phone records and other documents using national security letters — a secret type of subpoena — officials said. And at least one government informant met several times with Mr. Page and Mr. Papadopoulos, current and former officials said. That has become a politically contentious point, with Mr. Trump’s allies questioning whether the F.B.I. was spying on the Trump campaign or trying to entrap campaign officials.

The term “government informant” cited in the Times piece in no way establishes the government had embedded a secret agent with the Trump campaign. Rather, it could suggest someone who may have had repeated contacts with the Trump campaign spoke with investigators about what they had heard or seen — a whistleblower, in some sense.

Both Trump and conservative pundits and journalists alike have run with the “embedded agent” theory regardless. On Capitol Hill, firebrands like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — who has been criticized for his apparent bias toward Trump, even by members of his own party — has made repeated requests for highly classified materials that could unveil the name of the government source in question, despite intelligence officials warning that revealing such information could jeopardize the source. Nunes claims he has not made any specific requests or asked for the name of the source.

In the media, conservatives had expounded on the narrative, claiming it’s the red flag Republicans need to prove the Russia investigation is a hoax and based on improperly obtained information.

“Biggest takeaway [from the Times report]: Govt ‘sources’ admit that, indeed, the Obama DOJ and FBI spied on the Trump campaign. Spied. (Tho NYT kindly calls spy an ‘informant’),” Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Kimberley Strassel tweeted on Wednesday. “NYT slips in confirmation far down in story, and makes it out like it isn’t a big deal. It is a very big deal.”

Trump has previously claimed President Obama spied on him during the campaign, going so far as to allege his predecessor had wiretapped his offices in Trump Tower.

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found,” Trump tweeted in March 2017, similarly providing no proof to back his claim. “This is McCarthyism!”

Then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer later attempted to clarify those comments, telling reporters, “The president used the word ‘wiretap’ in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities during that. There is no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 elections.”