In the putrid rhetorical trash heap that is the public debate over the Russia investigation, a sharp divide has arisen between defenders of the FBI and the Trump camp over the use of “spy” or “informant” to describe the source the FBI used to probe two members of the Trump campaign about possible coordination with Moscow’s effort to sway the 2016 election.

In a barrage of tweets in recent days, President Trump has sought to brand the FBI’s use of a confidential source as “Spygate.”

But, at least one influential Republican sympathetic to Trump isn’t buying it. After a briefing on the matter last week by officials of the FBI and Justice Department, Rep. Trey Gowdy told Fox News that he was satisfied the FBI acted appropriately. “I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got.” he said.

Spy Versus Informant

Whether you use the term “spy” or “informant” is a semantic debate that is only of interest insofar as the connotations with which the term comes loaded. “Spy,” in this case, is meant by Trump and his supporters to imply something sinister — that the FBI “spied” on the Trump campaign for the explicit purpose of benefiting Hillary Clinton’s campaign politically.

“Informant,” the preferred term of the Russia investigation’s defenders, implies that the purpose was to investigate potential wrongdoing of the target and/or those with whom they were interacting.

Political Purposes?

Accepting this construct, calling the FBI’s source a “spy” requires that the FBI sought information primarily for nefarious “political” purposes that are improper. This could take two forms: 1) information was gathered and passed on to the Clinton campaign or, 2) information was gathered and then used in some way to damage Trump and benefit Hillary’s election.

There is no evidence that either of these scenarios reflect reality. As far as we are aware, the fruits of the FBI’s “spying” were not passed along to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, nor were they released publicly in a way intended to politically damage Trump or help Hillary. In fact, the FBI went to lengths to tamp down rumors about Trump and Russia before the election. The FBI’s investigation was not even confirmed until a few days before the election, and when it was, the FBI made clear that their investigation to date had turned up no links to Russia.

Trump supporters contend that information from the FBI’s source may have been used to support the Bureau’s application of a FISA warrant on Carter Page. a former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor. That is possible. But, if the information provided by the FBI’s source bolstered the case for a FISA warrant, it suggests that the information he provided was of value. In which case, the “spying” seems justified.

Trump’s defenders are also quick to point out that Page has yet to be charged with a crime. Evidence, they contend, that the FBI targeted an innocent man in a political vendetta against Trump. Page’s culpability in all this is not clear. He did travel to Russia during the campaign, where he gave a decidedly pro-Russian anti-American speech and met with various Russian businessmen and government officials while there. And, Russian spies attempted to recruit him in 2013 as a Kremlin agent. But, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that alone. But, combined with other information the FBI had, including the Dossier, probable cause that Page was an agent of a foreign power sufficient to justify a FISA warrant seems plausible.

A FISA warrant requires a reasonable basis to believe that the target was an agent of a foreign power, not proof of it. If Carter Page turns out not to be an agent of a foreign power, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the FBI acted improperly, so long as the FBI genuinely had a basis for reasonable suspicion that this was the case. Investigators acting in good faith can, and sometimes will, bark up the wrong tree.

If the FBI “spied” on the Trump campaign for political purposes, there is no indication that Hillary Clinton’s campaign reaped any sort of benefit. The controversies over Russia that existed during the campaign were driven almost entirely by the Wikileaks dump and Trump’s comments.

Secret Plot to Discredit Trump?

The other theory, that the FBI’s investigation was a secret plot to discredit Trump should he win is undermined by the widespread assumption within the FBI that Clinton would be victorious at the polls.

Could a generally sour view of Trump have made FBI agents more willing to chase down alleged cooperation between Trump and Russia? Maybe. But, all the smoke surrounding the Trump campaign’s links to Russia probably had a lot to do with it too.

The confluence of Russia’s interference in the election, which was intended to damage Hillary Clinton and help Trump win, with the information available at the time provides good reason to suspect something fishy. Setting aside the Dossier and whatever the FBI knew from clandestine sources, from public information this included:

  • evidence that at least one member of Trump’s team knew of Russia’s plans in advance;
  • the embrace of the offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government that led to that infamous Trump tower meeting;
  • the extensive business and personal ties between Russian-linked interests and Trump world;
  • Trump’s personal enthusiasm for Russian President Vladimir Putin;
  • efforts by team Trump during the campaign to further Moscow’s priorities, such as their successful opposition to a proposed changed in the GOP platform to call for arming Ukrainian rebels; and,
  • the deceptiveness of Trump and members of his campaign team about all of this.

None of that, of course, is evidence of guilt. But, it certainly suggests that the FBI’s decision to look into the possibility that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia was not unwarranted.

What About Hillary?

Some Trump defenders point to various controversies around Hillary Clinton to argue that Robert Mueller should investigate those instead. Yes, it’s also reasonable to be suspicious about the coincidence of CFIUS approval of the Uranium One deal and large contributions to the Clinton Foundation. And, as of last check, two FBI field offices are looking into the Clinton Foundation.

But, Hillary Clinton is not the President of the United States; Uranium One didn’t try to meddle in the 2016 election; and, Hillary Clinton did not fire the FBI Director out of annoyance with the ongoing investigation. If all three of those things had happened, it’s a pretty good bet Hillary Clinton would be facing with a special counsel investigation too.

The semantic argument about “spy” versus “informant” confuses the issues. It’s fair to question whether the FBI overreached, or cut corners in its haste to investigate Russia’s election meddling. It’s also fair to ask whether this raises civil liberties concerns.

But, the use of the term “spy,” and affixing “Obama” as a prefix to “FBI,” as President Trump has done in his recent tweets, conflates these concerns with unfounded allegations of “political motivation.”

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