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Why Trump is lying about former DNI James Clapper

Trump says James Clapper "admitted" the FBI put spies in his campaign. There's a reason the president is peddling this particular lie.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. testifies during a hearing on Feb. 11, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty)
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. testifies during a hearing on Feb. 11, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

During a brief Q&A with reporters at the White House yesterday, Donald Trump suggested that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had quietly endorsed the president's new favorite conspiracy theory.

"If you look at Clapper, he sort of admitted that they had spies in the campaign, yesterday, inadvertently," Trump said, clinging to the ridiculous assertion that federal law enforcement embedded spies in the Republican's political operation.

And while the president yesterday included qualifiers in his claim -- note the use of "sort of" -- he was more direct this morning. "Clapper has now admitted that there was Spying in my campaign," Trump wrote on Twitter.

The conspiracy theory is made up, but what's with all the talk about Clapper's "admission"? As is too often the case, Trump appears to be trying to deceive the public, referring to this exchange on "The View" between Clapper and co-host Joy Behar:

Joy Behar: "So I ask you, was the F.B.I. spying on Trump's campaign?"Mr. 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 or influence, which is what they do."Ms. Behar: "Well, why doesn't he like that? He should be happy."Mr. Clapper: "He should be. I mean, Russia — it's one of the reasons I wrote my book, was the threat Russia poses because they are bent on undermining our system. And that's what they did, and had a lot of success during the course of the election."

As the New York Times  explained, "In other words, Mr. Clapper used the word 'spy' to describe intelligence gathering on Russian efforts to influence the election. He explicitly denied that the F.B.I. 'spied' on Mr. Trump's campaign. "

So why is the president peddling such an easily discredited claim? It's likely Trump believes he has no other choice.

Remember, he seriously expects the public to believe -- without proof -- that the Obama administration orchestrated an elaborate scheme that included using federal law enforcement to implant spies in the GOP campaign.

The president has no evidence, and never will, because these events never happened in reality. But if he can take part of a James Clapper quote and turn it into a lie, Trump apparently believes he'll be able to fool some people.

It's lazy and dumb, but his base will need something to hang their hat on.

Of course, there is an underappreciated risk tied to this gambit: the more Trump points to Clapper as a source of important information, the more we're reminded that Clapper believes Trump is an illegitimate president, who's only in power thanks to an illegal intelligence operation launched by a foreign adversary.