President Donald Trump. | AP Photo
President Donald Trump’s first intelligence briefing as a candidate in August 2016 was led by FBI agents who had just opened an investigation into his team’s ties to Russia, according to a newly declassified document obtained by POLITICO.
The document, a seven-page summary of Trump’s intelligence briefing by the agent who helped lead it, was filed as part of the so-called Crossfire Hurricane probe, the codename for the bureau’s broader Russia investigation.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified the document, along with two others, on Thursday and sent them to Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who have been investigating the origins of the probe in addition to the Obama administration’s actions during the presidential transition period.
The documents are the latest in a series of disclosures by Ratcliffe to congressional Republicans seeking to support claims by Trump and his allies that the FBI investigation of Trump was politically motivated and corrupt.
The agents’ decision to monitor the briefing appeared aimed at gleaning information from Trump’s close adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who attended the briefing with Trump, and then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was Trump’s transition team leader at the time. Flynn was codenamed “Crossfire Razor” by investigators, and the document heading includes a reference to his case. At the time, Trump had recently secured the Republican presidential nomination.
The summary indicates that the agent coordinating the briefing, Joe Pientka — also one of the agents who later interviewed Flynn days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017 — paid special attention to any mentions that Trump or Flynn made of Russia.
“During the [intelligence] briefs, writer actively listened for topics or questions regarding the Russian Federation,” Pientka wrote.
Though there were a handful of mentions of Russia, it’s unclear whether the agents’ approach yielded anything of significance. At one point, after Trump’s briefers described Chinese and Russian intelligence officers operating in the United States, Trump interjected with a question: “Joe, are the Russians bad” Because they have more numbers are they worse than the Chinese?"
“Writer responded by saying both countries are bad,” Pientka wrote.
Trump also asked which country, Russia or China, was worse when it came to violations of nuclear testing bans. According to Pientka, the briefer responded: "They are both bad, but Russia is worse.”
“Trump and Christie turned toward each other and Christie commented, ‘I’m shocked,’” Pientka wrote.
The document, dated Aug. 30, 2016, was written two weeks after Trump’s briefing and a month after the FBI opened the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. It was approved by one of the probe’s lead agents, Peter Strzok, whose anti-Trump text messages during the campaign have fueled Trump’s claims that the investigation was a “hoax.”
It was also approved by FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who has been accused by the Justice Department inspector general of doctoring an email that was used to obtain a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Pientka’s contemporaneous notes from the briefing were also declassified. They include a general outline of the topics that were discussed.
During the briefing, FBI officials warned Trump that foreign agents might try to approach his associates, including family, friends and campaign staff. Though Trump has argued he was never warned explicitly that the FBI had concerns that some of his closest aides were compromised — including Flynn and campaign manager Paul Manafort — the file indicates that he and his team were given a general warning about the possibility.
During a discussion of some foreign intelligence capabilities, Flynn mentioned that he had been responsible for signals intelligence during his time as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Pientka replied that that should give him a good sense of the capabilities foreign powers could deploy against the United States.
“Trump then stated, ‘Yes I understand it’s a dark time,’” Pientka described. “‘Nothing is safe on computers anymore. We used to lock things in a safe in a room. Now anyone can get in. My son is ten years old. He has a computer and we put a codeword on it. Within ten minutes he broke the codeword.’”
In addition to information about Trump’s first intelligence briefing, Ratcliffe on Thursday declassified a series of emails between Pientka and Strzok, in which Strzok asks that counterintelligence agents be included in future briefings.