Political News

Trump Digs In on Unconfirmed Claims of a Spy Inside His Campaign

Posted May 23, 2018 9:48 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump accused federal investigators on Wednesday of using a spy inside his campaign, repeating unconfirmed claims and saying it could be one of the “biggest political scandals in history!” The president also gave the scandal a name: “SPYGATE.”

In a series of Twitter posts early Wednesday about the continuing Russia investigation, Trump briefly departed from his previous language about the possibility that the government deployed a spy inside his presidential campaign. Instead, he stated it as fact.

“Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State,” he wrote. “They go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before! What goes around, comes around!”

Hours later, Trump slightly backed off, telling reporters, “I hope it’s not true, but it looks like it is.”

But the president has decidedly joined his allies in Congress in an offensive against the Justice Department, calling for law enforcement officials to share documents related to an informant who approached several of his campaign advisers who had been in contact with suspected Russian agents. The use of the informant was to glean information about what the aides knew about the Russian efforts to hack into Democratic emails — not to spy on Trump’s campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.

Top intelligence and law enforcement officials were scheduled to meet with Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, purportedly to share the highly classified information about the informant that the lawmakers have demanded.

Senators from both parties, including the Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., worked behind the scenes to try to lobby the Trump administration to cancel the meeting and instead share the sensitive information through the so-called Gang of Eight party leadership, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The group is made up of the Republican and Democratic leaders of both chambers and the top members of the intelligence committees, and is typically the venue through which the government’s most sensitive secrets are shared with Congress.

Instead, the meeting will go on as scheduled and a second meeting for the Gang of Eight was being planned for after the congressional Memorial Day recess, according to Raj Shah, a White House spokesman. John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, had agreed to arrange the meeting amid the rancor between senior law enforcement officials and Republican congressmen loyal to the president, including Rep. Devin Nunes of California.

Such an arrangement is unlikely to satisfy Democrats, who publicly urged the Justice Department and the FBI to reconsider holding the meeting with Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“This meeting is completely improper in its proposed form and would set a damaging precedent for your institutions and the rule of law,” the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate wrote in a joint letter. “We can think of no legitimate oversight justification for the ex parte dissemination — at the direction of the president — of investigative information to the president’s staunchest defenders in Congress and, ultimately, to the president’s legal defense team.”

Meanwhile, three Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee — including its chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa — seized on the uncertainty Wednesday to request that they, too, be included in any briefing.

One of the advisers whom the informant spoke to, George Papadopoulos, has completed his cooperation in the investigation, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, signaled on Wednesday. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI and agreed to talk to Mueller about his role in what the bureau believes was a covert Russian influence operation. Mueller had asked that the sentencing of Papadopoulos, a key witness in the investigation, be delayed while he was cooperating. On Wednesday, prosecutors asked a federal judge to move forward with the sentencing.

Prosecutors normally do not sentence cooperators until after all their cooperation has been exhausted, meaning Mueller most likely does not expect Papadopoulos to testify against anybody who has not yet been charged. Trump’s claims about the government spying on his campaign are part of a pattern. He has railed consistently about injustice and political bias among the top officials at the Justice Department, whom he appointed. He has described the department as a “deep state,” and on Wednesday appeared to accuse it of criminal activity, calling it the “Criminal Deep State.”

The latest accusation is similar to Trump’s claims in the early days of his presidency that former President Barack Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped” in Trump Tower. His unsubstantiated claims were later proved to be false after a Justice Department review.

Until recently, Trump has couched the notion of an informant inside his campaign as a hypothetical. On Sunday, the president ordered an investigation into such claims, a move some say crossed a line intended to put constraints on executive power. The president and the White House do not make decisions about law enforcement investigations.

James B. Comey, the former FBI director, stood up for the bureau against Trump’s claims on Wednesday, saying in a tweet, “Facts matter.”

Later in the day, Trump said it was Comey who lied. And the president said his efforts to learn more about the informant were not undercutting anything.

“We’re cleaning everything up,” Trump said, speaking to reporters before he boarded Marine One on his way to Joint Base Andrews. “What I’m doing is a service to this country.”

He said he did the country a service when he fired Comey, as well.

“If you look at the lies, the tremendous lies, if you look at all that’s going on, I think James Comey’s got a lot of problems,” Trump said.

Since his earliest days in office, Trump has lashed out against the government’s investigation into whether members of his campaign worked with the Russians in their efforts to interfere in the election. Trump fired Comey, in part, the president has said, because he wanted to put an end to the inquiry. The firing was the first in a series of events that culminated in the appointment of a special counsel.

Trump regularly pushes back against the Russia investigation, calling it a witch hunt, a scam and phony.

Trump has also claimed the investigators themselves are corrupt or incompetent. The president has berated his attorney general and the Justice Department for not conducting inquiries into his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, about her use of a private email server and her family’s charitable foundation. Trump has also painted the former deputy director of the FBI as a Clinton loyalist, suggesting political bias at the highest levels of the bureau and its inquiry into the president’s former campaign aides.