The White House on Friday seized on revelations that the FBI during the 2016 campaign sent an undercover investigator to meet with an aide to then-candidate Donald Trump, with the president calling the news “bigger than Watergate.”
Trump praised one of his most frequent media foes, The New York Times, for its reporting, while his reelection campaign lit into investigators and Vice President Mike Pence called the bureau’s actions “very troubling.”
“Finally, Mainstream Media is getting involved – too ‘hot’ to avoid,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Pulitzer Prize anyone? The New York Times, on front page (finally), ‘Details effort to spy on Trump Campaign.’ @foxandfriends This is bigger than WATERGATE, but the reverse!”
At the heart of Trump’s claim is a Times report out Thursday that a woman, sent by the FBI, identified herself as an assistant to a Cambridge researcher when she met in London in 2016 with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who later pleaded guilty to making false statements to the bureau. The woman was sent as part of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
The revelation that the bureau sent someone undercover to meet with Papadopoulos has fueled the president’s and his allies’ insistence that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was politically motivated and that the Trump 2016 campaign was under inappropriate surveillance.
That investigation, however, was reportedly opened after Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russians had offered to help Trump’s campaign, before the aide met the undercover woman.
Still, Trump continued to claim Friday that the report was proof of his spying claims, praising it as a marked departure from what he said is consistently negative coverage about his presidency.
“I was happy to see on the front of The New York Times for the first time where they were talking about spying and they’re talking about spying on my campaign,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “That’s a big difference between the way they’ve been covering. That’s a story bigger than Watergate, as far as I’m concerned.”
The woman, who identified herself as Azra Turk, posed for her meeting with the Trump campaign aide as an assistant to Cambridge professor and government informant Stefan Halper. The meeting veered eventually from its purported purpose, foreign policy, to the woman directly asking Papadopoulos whether the Trump campaign was working with Russia to interfere in the election. At that point, investigators had been looking into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties for little more than a month, though the politically fraught probe was still being kept under wraps.
The operation “yielded no fruitful information,” the Times reported, and though FBI officials have insisted their investigatory actions taken before the 2016 election were legal, they are being probed by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
The FBI declined to comment to the Times on the undercover effort.
In the wake of Mueller concluding his investigation earlier this year without finding a conspiracy to collude with Russians, Trump and his allies have clamored for an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, calls Attorney General William Barr has said he supports.
Barr came under fire last month when he told lawmakers it was possible there was “spying” on the Trump campaign that should be looked into. He has since defended his use of the term “spying,” arguing that there was likely more involved in the probe’s genesis than what is publicly known.
Pence agreed with Barr’s phrasing in an interview with Fox News on Friday.
“We’ve got to get to the bottom of how all this started. The American people have a right to know how this investigation even began. And as the attorney general said when he testified before Congress, there was spying. We need to understand why there was, whether there was a sufficient predicate. We really need to get to the bottom of how this all began and if there was a violation of the rules, if the law was broken, the people that were responsible need to be held accountable,” he said.
“It’s very troubling,” he said of the Times report, adding later that “the American people are not going to tolerate this.”
In a statement Thursday, Trump’s reelection campaign manager ripped into the revelations.
“There is a word for this in the English language: Spying,” Brad Parscale said. “Democrats and their media friends have expressed horror at the term, but there is no other way to describe it: the FBI spied on the Trump campaign in 2016.”
Parscale accused Democrats and the press of ignoring the “real scandal,” the “Obama Administration using the Justice Department to spy on a political adversary’s campaign.”
He added: “As President Trump has said, it is high time to investigate the investigators.”
Though the Russia investigation was triggered by Papadopoulos’ disclosure to an Australian diplomat that he’d been told Russia had “dirt” on Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, the president has repeatedly and incorrectly claimed that it was based off an unsubstantiated dossier claiming Russia had compromising information on him that was funded by his political opponents.
Late Thursday, however, Trump appeared to call for dropping an investigation into his investigators before returning to his insistence that the Russia probe had been rigged.
“OK, so after two years of hard work and each party trying their best to make the other party look as bad as possible, it’s time to get back to business,” he wrote in a pair of tweets. “The Mueller Report strongly stated that there was No Collusion with Russia (of course) and, in fact, they were rebuffed at every turn in attempts to gain access. But now Republicans and Democrats must come together for the good of the American people. No more costly & time consuming investigations.”