Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Misquotes Clapper on FBI ‘Spy’

In a morning tweetstorm on the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump misquoted James Clapper. Trump claimed the former intelligence director said, “Trump should be happy that the FBI was SPYING on his campaign,” when, in fact, Clapper said the FBI did not spy on his campaign.

Clapper said that Trump should have been happy to know that the FBI was investigating “what the Russians were doing” to infiltrate his campaign and influence a U.S. presidential election.

The president in recent days has repeatedly accused the FBI of spying on his campaign in the summer of 2016. He’s referring to media reports that an undercover FBI intelligence source met with Trump campaign aides in the summer and fall of 2016 as part of the agency’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential campaign.

In a tweet on May 20, Trump called for the Justice Department to “look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” A day later, the Justice Department announced it asked the department’s inspector general to conduct a review.

Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the Russia investigation, said that “if anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action.”

Even before the inspector general’s office begins its work, however, the president has determined that the FBI was illegally spying on his campaign. In a series of tweets on the morning of May 23, Trump claimed the FBI informant “was only there to spy for political reasons,” calling it “a major spy scandal” — which he dubbed “spygate.”

He also misquoted Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, who appeared on “The View” on May 22 to talk about his new book, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence.” The show’s co-hosts, Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg, later asked Clapper about the FBI’s use of an undercover informant.

Behar specifically asked Clapper if the FBI was “spying on the Trump campaign.” He said it did not. Still, Trump distorted Clapper’s answer, putting these words in the mouth of the former intelligence head: “Trump should be happy that the FBI was SPYING on his campaign.”

Trump’s choice of words is verbatim from a headline on Real Clear Politics — except that the website only put the words “happy” and “spying” in quotation marks.

In remarks to reporters later in the day, Trump said Clapper “sort of admitted that they had spies in the campaign, yesterday, inadvertently.”

The exchange between Clapper and Behar shows that Clapper, in fact, never said that “the FBI was SPYING on his campaign.” Quite the opposite.

Clapper, May 22: With the informant business, well, the point here is —

Behar: Well, let me get to my questions.

Clapper: — are the Russians, not spying on the campaign. But what are the Russians doing and in a sense, unfortunately, what they were trying to do is protect our political system and protect the campaign.

Behar: … So, I ask you, was the FBI spying on Trump’s campaign?

Clapper: No, they were not. They were spying on, a term I don’t particularly like, but on what the Russians were doing. Trying to understand were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence which is what they do.

Behar: Well, why doesn’t he like that? He should be happy.

Clapper: Well, he should be.

So, contrary to what Trump claimed, Clapper said the informant’s target was the Russians, not the Trump campaign.

In the course of its counterintelligence investigation, which is still ongoing, the U.S. intelligence community has found that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” according to a declassified intelligence report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Jan. 6, 2017. 

According to the report, Russian intelligence services gained access to the Democratic National Committee computer network and released hacked material to WikiLeaks and other outlets “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances.” It also used “paid social media users or ‘trolls'” to wage a social media campaign to influence U.S. voters.  

So far, the special counsel’s office has charged three Russian organizations and 13 Russian nationals with illegal campaign activities and conspiracy to defraud the United States. According to the Feb. 16 indictment, Russians used the names of U.S. citizens and companies to illegally buy political ads on social media and paid “real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates.” U.S. citizens did not knowingly participate in these illegal activities, Rosenstein said at the time. 

In addition, the special counsel’s office has indicted Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s former business associate and a Trump campaign aide, on charges related to their work, conducted before the Trump campaign, for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements to federal investigators, and is now cooperating with investigators.

Also, George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a professor who Papadopoulos “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, also pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Flynn admitted he lied to FBI agents about two discussions he had with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in December 2016 when Flynn was still a private citizen and before Trump took office.

Both Papadopoulos and Flynn are now cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation. (For more about these and other key moments in the investigation, please see “Timeline of Russia Investigation.”)

Papadopoulos was among three Trump campaign officials who were contacted by the FBI informant in the summer and fall of 2016, according to the Washington Post. The others were Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis and foreign policy adviser Carter Page, the Post reported.

The FBI informant’s contacts with Trump campaign officials will be the subject of the inspector general’s report, so it remains unclear whether the agency acted properly or not. But it is clear that Clapper thinks the agency did exactly what it should have done, and the president distorts his words in claiming otherwise.

Share the Facts
FactCheck.org rating logo FactCheck.org Rating:
Claimed former intelligence director James Clapper said, “Trump should be happy that the FBI was SPYING on his campaign."
Wednesday, May 23, 2018