If you’ve been diverting all your energy to the royal wedding the last couple of days, you might have missed that President Trump has glommed on to a new pet conspiracy theory: that an FBI informant embedded in the Trump campaign conspired to undermine him during the 2016 campaign, thus proving all his rantings about a hostile “deep state” true.
The allegation has been floating around for weeks, with President Trump’s loyalists in Congress, most notably Representative Devin Nunes, wielding it as another tool to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
On Friday, the Washington Post and New York Times published articles that shed much more light on the matter. There was an FBI informant gathering information about Trump campaign officials. But, unsurprisingly, Trump and Nunes’s version of events doesn’t quite track with reality. Here’s what we know so far:
Why was there an informant in the first place?
In summer 2016, as the FBI grew increasingly concerned about possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, it launched a top-secret investigation named “Crossfire Hurricane.” Only a handful of FBI agents knew the particulars of the inquiry, in stark contrast to the more wide-ranging investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. The informant was one part of the early, stutter-stop efforts to investigate possible collusion. Crossfire Hurricane was eventually folded in to Mueller’s ongoing investigation.
What did the informant do?
The source was not planted within the Trump campaign, as the president alleges. Instead, he reportedly tried to ferret out information over the course of months from multiple Trump campaign advisers who have been caught up in the collusion investigation, including George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn.
Papadopoulos is the Trump foreign policy adviser who sparked the FBI’s investigation in the first place when he told an Australian diplomat in spring 2016 that Russia had damaging information on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, months before WikiLeaks released its batch of damaging messages.
The informant made contact with Papadopoulos in an effort to learn more. The Times reports that he posed as an academic, asking Papadopoulos in an email if he was interested in “writing a research paper on a disputed gas field in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a subject of Mr. Papadopoulos expertise.” The offer also included a $3,000 honorarium and a trip to London, where the two could meet. Papadopoulos accepted. During multiple conversations, the informant pressed Papadopoulos on information about Russian efforts to sway the election — by that point, Clinton’s hacked emails had been made public — but Papadopoulos denied any knowledge.
The informant met several times with Carter Page, the eccentric then-Trump adviser, who was under FBI surveillance over his suspicious ties to Russia.
“There has been some speculation that he might have tried to reel me in,” Page told the Washington Post in response to Friday’s story. “At the time, I never had any such impression.”
The informant also met Sam Clovis, then Trump’s co-campaign chairman, for coffee in Northern Virginia in late summer 2016. Clovis’s lawyer told the Post that their conversation focused on China, and that “Russia never came up.”
The Times reports that the informant also “had contacts” with Flynn, Trump’s erstwhile national security adviser, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. The informant reportedly first met Flynn in 2014 at an intelligence seminar, and “was alarmed by the general’s apparent closeness with a Russian woman who was also in attendance.”
Exactly when the informant began his work, the full extent of his contact with Trump campaign officials, and what information he ultimately gathered from his meetings remains unknown.
Who is the informant?
The New York Times and Washington Post are aware of his identity, but chose not to publish it. The Times said it made its decision because it “typically does not name informants to preserve their safety.” The Post reports that it received “warnings from U.S. intelligence officials that exposing him could endanger him or his contacts,” and that “the stakes are so high that the FBI has been working over the past two weeks to mitigate the potential damage if the source’s identity is revealed, according to several people familiar with the matter.” The Justice Department has strongly pushed back on revealing the informant’s identity, and Senator Mark Warner has called outing him “potentially illegal.”
However, on Thursday, the Daily Caller reported that Page had met with Stefan Halper, a foreign policy scholar and author who has worked in the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations, and played a major role in a CIA spying operation involving the 1980 election. That followed a March Daily Caller report on Papadopolous’s strange meetings with Halper.
The abundance of details in the Post and Times stories — that the informant is an American academic who lives in England, the timing and locations of his meetings with Page and Papadopoulos — made it easy to connect the dots and all but confirm Halper as the informant.
Is what the informant did aboveboard?
By all accounts, launching a counterintelligence investigation to ensure that campaign officials aren’t vulnerable to foreign influence and blackmail is standard operating procedure at the FBI, not a scandal. There is no indication that Halper went beyond this mandate, nor is there any sign that anyone at the FBI actually took steps to damage Trump’s campaign in the public eye by attempting to reveal the ongoing investigation to the public.
In an op-ed, former FBI agent Asha Rangappa writes that “relying on a covert source rather than a more intrusive method of gathering information suggests that the FBI may have been acting cautiously — perhaps too cautiously — to protect the campaign, not undermine it.”
What do Trump loyalists want?
Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and one of the president’s fiercest attack dogs in Congress, has been pushing for weeks to get the Justice Department to hand over its records concerning the informant, going so far as to subpoena the agency and threatening to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of Congress. But the DOJ has resisted.
Nunes has been joined in his quest by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said this week that the confirmation of a confidential source would render Mueller’s probe “completely illegitimate.” Nunes seemed somewhat mollified after a meeting last week with DOJ officials, but undoubtedly he’ll find a way to keep attacking the judiciary, even with the identify of the informant now publicly known.
Meanwhile, conservative media has run with the notion that the FBI was actively trying to sabotage Trump’s campaign. But, as Jonathan Chait notes, there’s just one problem with this theory: The FBI did not reveal any of the damaging information it had assembled before the election, and sources at the agency got the New York Times to falsely report that they saw no ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The agency did, however, unleash an October surprise on Clinton.