Debunking Barr’s Revival Of The White House’s “Spygate” Conspiracy Theory

Attorney General William Barr’s invocation of the word “spying” just poured gasoline on the FISA conspiracy theory that has long been doused by the facts.
From left: Attorney General William Barr, President Donald Trump, and former Campaign Adviser Carter Page.

From left: Attorney General William Barr, President Donald Trump, and former Campaign Adviser Carter Page.

After yesterday’s House Appropriations Committee hearing, we published an article headlined: Barr Just Showed Americans Why They Shouldn’t Trust Him. Today’s hearing made that headline look like an understatement. Attorney General William Barr appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee and made several troubling claims showcasing the extent of his partisanship.

We could spend the duration of this article discussing how Barr refused to say Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation isn’t an illegal witch hunt. We could also talk about how Barr acknowledged Mueller didn’t ask him to make the decision to clear Trump of obstruction of justice. Instead, we are going to thoroughly dissect the newly resurrected conspiracy theory that the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign.

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Today, Barr made a very poor choice of words, claiming that he thinks “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign.

When he was pressed, he claimed “I have no specific evidence that I would cite right now. I do have questions about it.” Later in the hearing, when offered the opportunity to clarify, Barr walked back his claim entirely, stating: “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and I’m looking into it.”

Unfortunately, the damage was done. Right-wing and mainstream media outlets ran with damning headlines.

As we know, this “Spygate” conspiracy theory was originally started by President Trump and House Republicans when Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA-22) was still House Intelligence Committee Chairman. Remember the infamous “Nunes memo”? In a nutshell, “Spygate” is based on the false idea that the FISA surveillance of former Trump Campaign Adviser Carter Page was politically motivated, that the FISA court was misled, and the warrant was based on the Christopher Steele dossier. As we know, none of that is true.

First off, Carter Page was no longer a member of the campaign when his FISA warrant was renewed, he was a suspected Russian asset as far back as 2014, and his warrant was based on actionable intel. A redacted version of Carter Page’s entire FISA application was released last year and disproved President Trump’s talking points. Let’s dissect further:

Debunking “Spygate”

In July of 2018, the redacted FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) application for Carter Page, and its three subsequent renewals, were released. This was the first time the Justice Department released a FISA application to the public.

In February of 2018, Nunes, who is the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, released a memo that argued Trump’s campaign was wrongfully spied on. It was later revealed that Nunes didn’t read the underlying intelligence the memo was summarizing.

After the release of these 412 pages of FISA documents, which proved these claims to be false, President Trump, House Republicans, and conservative media continued to push this false narrative. Their claims have never stacked up to the facts.

The FISA Warrants Were Not Wrongfully Obtained Or Politically Motivated

The FISA application, and its subsequent renewals, were approved by four Republican-appointed judges. In order to successfully obtain a FISA warrant for FBI surveillance, one needs to demonstrate probable cause that a crime was committed. The application noted: “[T]here is probable cause that such activities involve or are about to involve violations of the criminal statutes of the United States.”

Carter Page had been a subject of FISA surveillance as far back as 2014 (before the Trump campaign) and was the subject of repeated FBI questioning, and over 10 hours of questioning by congressional investigators in 2017. The FISA application documents detailed why by outlining suspicions that Carter Page was an asset of the Russian government. Carter Page came under surveillance again after Page already left the campaign, so that contradicts Trump’s claim that his campaign was spied on.

The October 2016 FISA application renewal notes that “The F.B.I. believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government” and “that the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” the Trump campaign (the applications refer to Trump as Candidate #1). Page’s conduct demonstrated the warrant’s approval, and subsequent renewals, were not politically motivated, but rather due to real concerns.

Background: Carter Page was a former adviser to candidate Trump until the Trump campaign distanced themselves from him after his Russia ties were reported on. Page is the founder of Global Energy Capital, an investment firm in New York, where he partnered with Sergei Yatsenk. Yatsenk is a former Gazprom executive, a Kremlin-owned energy company Page did business with during the time he lived in Russia from 2004–2007.

Carter Page became a subject of the Trump-Russia probe due to his campaign-approved trip to Moscow in July of 2016 to meet with Igor Sechinthe chairman of the Russia State-owned oil company Rosneft, and may have discussed the prospect of lifting sanctions on Russia. Page also met with Russian spy Victor Podobnyy in 2013, Russians have reportedly attempted to cultivate Page as a way to infiltrate the Trump campaign, and Page has admitted to communications with Russians during the campaign.

The FISA Court Was Not Misled, And The Dossier Did Not Trigger The Russia Investigation

The central claim of Nunes’ original memo which perpetuated “Spygate” was that the FISA courts were misled about British spy Christopher Steele’s role, and that the courts were not aware that the Trump-Russia dossier was political research.

There’s an entire page in the initial FISA application that discusses this, countering Nunes’ claim. In it, the DNC isn’t specifically named just like Trump wasn’t explicitly named. This is called masking, which is the proper way classified intelligence is concealed. Nunes and Trump once raised a scandal around the “unmasking” of names in 2017. After this was released, it appeared they were arguing for the contrary.

Trump’s and the GOP’s claiming that the Christopher Steele Dossier is what sparked the Russia investigation is a repeated talking point of Republicans and conservative media. As has been widely reported, George Papadopoulos bragging about the fact Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton to an Australian diplomat is what triggered the investigation. Chris Wallace of Fox News has debunked the claim about the dossier and Nunes’ own February 2018 memo outlines it as well:

To Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-OH-4) tweet about the dossier not being credible, Nunes’ memo mentions that the dossier was partially corroborated by the FBI (full memo text here.)

In summary, President Trump, the Republican Party, and conservative media’s continued claim that the Trump campaign was wrongfully spied on is simply not true.

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News // Carter Page / Devin Nunes / Donald Trump / FISA / Russia Investigation / William Barr