In 2016, the FBI sent a trusted investigator posing as an academic’s assistant to ask Donald Trump aide George Papadopoulos about the Trump campaign’s links to Russia, the New York Times reported Thursday.
The news of such a proactive step by the agency is likely to cause some Trump supporters to accuse the FBI of “spying” on Trump and his campaign in an effort to damage his chances of winning, as Trump himself has insisted in the past. But the effort can also be interpreted as a signal of how concerned the FBI was at the time about potential Russian inference in the election.
The FBI became alarmed about that possibility in the summer of 2016 after Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that the Russians had offered to help the Trump campaign by releasing the emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Australian government alerted American officials once Wikileaks published that trove of hacked emails, and the FBI opened its Russia investigation in July 2016.
According to the Times, the FBI decided to look into whether Papadopoulos had Russian contacts. During the investigation, the agency decided to also look into Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page. The FBI then had Cambridge professor Stefan A. Halper, reportedly a longtime informant, reach out to Papadopoulos to set up a meeting in London to discuss a Mediterranean natural gas project. The FBI also sent along a trained agent, who had given her name as Azra Turk, to pose as Halper’s assistant. The two were meant to quiz Papadopoulos about any connection between the campaign and Russia, and Turk also met with Papadopoulos separately for drinks.
Papadopoulos wrote in his book that when he met Turk in London in September, she began to immediately press him about the campaign’s connection to Russia. (British intelligence officials were also notified about the operation, according to the Times, but it’s unclear if they were at all involved.). He wrote that he met with both Turk and Halper the next day, and in a follow-up drink with Halper, the professor began immediately quizzing him about the hacked emails and Russia.
Turk and Halper did not learn anything of significance from the effort, but Halper, a well-connected academic, continued his work with the FBI. He met repeatedly with Page and gradually became more closely connected to the Trump world.
The FBI has said the agency carefully considered the seriousness of monitoring an active presidential campaign, according to the Times, and it was careful that word of the investigation should not reach the public. Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, is investigating the FBI’s activities, including those involving Halper, before the 2016 election. Attorney General William Barr has said the results of that investigation could be completed in the next couple months.