Friday on "Morning Joe," NBC's Willie Geist interviewed New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, one of the writers behind a new story titled "FBI Sent Investigator Posing as Assistant to Meet With Trump Aide in 2016," about President Trump's claim that the contacts detailed in the piece prove the FBI was "spying" on his 2016 presidential campaign.
The president referred to the NYT piece on Twitter Friday morning, quipping: "Finally, Mainstream Media is getting involved - too “hot” to avoid. Pulitzer Prize anyone? The New York Times, on front page (finally)... This is bigger than WATERGATE, but the reverse!"
Finally, Mainstream Media is getting involved - too “hot” to avoid. 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2019
"How is this not spying?" Geist asked the NYT reporter.
"Well, I guess it depends on your definition of spying," Schmidt replied. "Now, if you’re a Trump supporter or if you’re Trump himself, you look at this and you say, 'A ha! See? This shows that the bureau was out to get the campaign.' But if you’re the FBI, you would say, 'Look, this is a good thing. This prevented the operation from going awry, and from going too far.'"
WILLIE GEIST, MSNBC: To better understand the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russia, the FBI in September 2016 sent an agent posing as a research assistant to meet with a Trump aide in London.
The New York Times reports that according to people familiar with the operation, the woman who was a government investigator reportedly set up a meeting to discuss foreign policy issues with then-Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and asked if the campaign was working with Russia. The operation did not yield any fruitful information, but FBI officials have defended the bureau's activities in the months before the election, saying they were both legal and carefully considered under extraordinary circumstances. Those actions now are under scrutiny as part of an investigation by the Justice Department's Inspector General, who could make the results public later this month. This new detail has become another political flashpoint among President Trump and his allies that law enforcement agencies and intelligence officials spied on the Trump campaign to undermine his chances to win. The FBI has denied that there’s been any conspiracy against the Trump campaign.
Joining us now is one of the co-authors of that report, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt. Michael, I want to get into some of the details of this piece because it is rich in those, but let me start with the central question on a lot of people’s minds last night as they first read it and as they read it this morning. How is this not spying?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of spying.
The attorney general sort of saying the other day that he has an expansive view of spying, including legal spying in the way that if the government actually has the right to be doing it, that spying is not illegal. Others have a different connotation of it and see it more nefariously. What this was, was the FBI felt that it needed to have eyes and ears on the ground as it used a confidential informant to speak to two Trump campaign officials. And what they did was install a woman with this professor in England who made these attempts to talk to these individuals and the woman herself spoke to at least one of them. What this showed to us was sort of how seriously the FBI was taking the problem, the lengths they were willing to go to, to put a trained investigator, someone that knew how to collect information, knew how to collect evidence, could testify at a trial, putting them on the ground to be there to make sure that this informant didn't go off the rails.
Now, if you’re a Trump supporter or if you’re Trump himself, you look at this and you say, 'Aha! See? This shows that the bureau was out to get the campaign.' But if you’re the FBI, you would say, 'Look, this is a good thing. This prevented the operation from going awry, and from going too far.'
WILLIE GEIST: What did they suspect of George Papadopoulos, a guy, Michael, as you know better than anyone, has been at the center of all this Russia talk over the last couple of years. Why did they zero in on him?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: They had learned from the Australians that Papadopoulos had had conversations with an intermediary about the Russians having dirt, having hacked emails, on Hillary Clinton. And there was a lot of concern at the time about what the Russians were doing in general during the election, what was their hacking about, was there election interference?
And then they learn about this -- that this campaign official may know something about what the Russians have, you know, against the Democrats, and they're trying to figure out are there connections here, are there ties here? And it was in that environment that they took the steps that they did to try and find out using these confidential informants, using a super-secret operation here to try and find out more about what was really going on, was the Trump campaign coordinating with the Russians?
Now, we know today after Bob Mueller's investigation that there was not direct coordination between the campaign and Russia, but in the summer of 2016, the FBI did not know that. They just knew that there was a lot of smoke and that they needed to dive in and try to figure out what was going on.
MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC: Okay. So, Michael, off of what you just said, what you just explained and off of the piece in today's "Times," is it fair to say that the core of this story, the core of this story, is what was Russia up to with regards to the American electoral process, rather than any one individual, rather than Papadopoulos, rather than the Trump campaign, the absolute bottom line core that drew the FBI into the story was Russian interference in an American election?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Correct. And you can stand today and say, well, why is it that the FBI did what they did? Why was it that they threw a confidential informant, you know, with this investigator on the ground at the campaign officials? The problem is is that in the summer of 2016, the FBI didn't know what it knows today. They just knew that there was a lot going on. They knew that the Russians had done a lot of hacking, they knew that the Russians had great ambitions to weigh in in the election. They saw these odd connections between Trump campaign officials and Russia, and they said, well, what's really going on here?
And they took a series of aggressive investigative steps. Now, in hindsight, the Republicans and Trump supporters are going to go after them and say that these measures may have been too aggressive. The inspector general at the Department of Justice is looking into this issue and will hopefully give some clarity to it and will sort of suss out, okay, these measures were warranted and these weren't. And then the folks on Capitol Hill can do whatever they want with it.