May 17, 2018

Where the "FBI spy in the Trump campaign" story came from

President Trump has grown increasingly convinced that the FBI used an informant to spy on his 2016 campaign, and has now demanded a Justice Department investigation:

The back story: There has been a growing amount of speculation by conservative writers that an FBI source spied on the Trump campaign, and might have even planted a spy inside. It's now clear from multiple news reports that the FBI had an informant who talked to two campaign advisers, but not that the informant was planted on the inside. That talk is based on suspicions — not evidence.

Between the lines: This all started with House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes' fight to get the Justice Department to turn over documents about an intelligence source who helped the Russia investigation.

The Washington Post reported on this source earlier this month, and the New York Times reported last week that the informant — an American academic who teaches in Britain — met with Trump campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, but only after the FBI was looking into their contacts with Russia.

The Wall Street Journal identified Stefan Halper as the suspected informant on Sunday, but neither the White House nor the FBI have confirmed it. Axios' Jonathan Swan reports that Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro recommended Halper for a senior role in the Trump administration.

Beyond that, the columns read a lot into what the source could have been doing.

Here's what the Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel wrote in a May 10 column:

"When government agencies refer to sources, they mean people who appear to be average citizens but use their profession or contacts to spy for the agency. Ergo, we might take this to mean that the FBI secretly had a person on the payroll who used his or her non-FBI credentials to interact in some capacity with the Trump campaign.
This would amount to spying, and it is hugely disconcerting."

National Review's Andrew McCarthy got more specific in a May 12 piece, noting that Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, testified to a Senate committee that former British spy Christopher Steele told him the FBI had a "human source" inside the Trump campaign —and then tried to walk it back. McCarthy believes Simpson got it right the first time.

And when he appeared on Fox and Friends last week, McCarthy went farther: "There's probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign." That's the line Trump quoted in a tweet declaring the possible spying was "bigger than Watergate."

The bottom line: We still have no evidence that the FBI actually planted a source inside the Trump campaign, and the reports from the New York Times and CNN concluded that it didn't. If there's any evidence that contradicts that, we won't know more unless it surfaces from the Justice Department inspector general's investigation into whether there was "any impropriety or political motivation" in the FBI's Russia investigation.

The other way we could learn more is if Nunes gets his information on the source. But if he discloses any of it, intelligence officials are warning that he could put the source in danger, per the Washington Post.

Until that gets resolved, this story is likely to be stuck in an uncomfortable limbo, with no evidence to back up the suspicions of questionable FBI surveillance — but no way to put them to rest, either.

This story has been updated to include Trump's demand for an investigation and more reporting on the FBI source.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 8:30 p.m. ET: 5,490,954 — Total deaths: 345,962 — Total recoveries — 2,228,915Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 8:30 p.m. ET: 1,662,250 — Total deaths: 98,218 — Total recoveries: 379,157 — Total tested: 14,604,942Map.
  3. World: Italy reports lowest number of new cases since February — Ireland reports no new coronavirus deaths on Monday for the first time since March 21 — WHO suspends trial of hydroxychloroquine over safety concerns.
  4. 2020: Trump threatens to move Republican convention from North Carolina — Joe Biden makes first public appearance in two months.
  5. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks over Memorial Day.
  6. Economy: New York stock exchange to reopen its floor on Tuesday — White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election — Charities refocus their efforts to fill gaps left by government.
  7. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Updated 18 mins ago - Politics & Policy

In photos: Authorities issue warning as Americans venture out for Memorial Day weekend

Ocean City in New Jersey on May 25. Photo: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images

Authorities urged Americans to maintain social distancing and wear masks to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus amid reports of packed beaches and bars during the Memorial Day weekend.

Details: Law enforcement stepped up beach patrols, and there were crowded scenes in several places, notably at Lake of the Ozarks bars in Missouri and at Daytona Beach and on the Gulf Coast in Florida, per AP. Police dispersed crowds in some places, ABC notes. But many Americans did take precautions against COVID-19 as they ventured outside for the long weekend, some three months after the pandemic began in the U.S.

Coronavirus stay-at-home orders crater voter registration efforts

A volunteer looks for persons wanting to register to vote on July 4, 2019 in Santa Fe, N.M. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic is scuppering usual "get out the vote" efforts, leading to fears that large swaths of Americans could miss out on this year's elections.

What’s happening: Advocacy groups typically target college campuses, churches, festivals, fairs and other gatherings to seek out people who have yet to register, but many of those places are now closed. Voter registration efforts have largely moved to the internet, but advocates question whether that will be as effective as the person-to-person pitch.