The FBI, under James Comey, handpicked a senior member of the team investigating alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and prepared him with “mock briefings” prior to conducting an official FBI security briefing for Trump’s presidential campaign — all in order to spy on and collect information from then-candidate Donald Trump and his national security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn.
Unbeknownst to both Trump and Flynn, the FBI investigator memorialized the briefing — which included exchanges with Flynn and Trump — in an official document that was added to the Crossfire Hurricane case file probing the Trump campaign over unsubstantiated and, ultimately, discredited charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
This past week, on July 23, internal FBI documents were formally declassified by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and then provided to Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The newly declassified documents detail how the FBI used an agent to conduct the standard briefing — which was meant to warn the Trump campaign against foreign intelligence threats — as an opportunity to gather information that could be used against the Trump campaign and, later, the administration.
The briefing in question was a standard FBI unclassified “counterintelligence awareness” briefing that is routinely given to transition teams for presidential candidates during an election cycle. The briefings were provided to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. The briefing for Trump campaign members, including Chris Christie — who was Trump’s transition team leader at the time — and Flynn, took place on August 17, 2016.
The Michael E. Horowitz Office of Inspector General (OIG) report noted how agent Joe Pientka, the FBI investigator who conducted the briefing, told the OIG that disgraced FBI agent Peter Strzok was mostly responsible for helping him prepare for the briefing with Trump and Flynn but that others also assisted — including the Intelligence Section Chief and possibly former FBI attorney Lisa Page.
Pientka told the OIG that he prepared himself for facing Trump and Flynn in a series of “mock briefings” attended by both Strzok and Page, the infamous texting duo who were allegedly romantically involved, along with the Intel Section Chief and possibly the OGC (Office of the General Counsel) Unit Chief.
In the FBI file documenting the briefing, Pientka wrote that he deliberately used the briefing to “actively listen for topics or questions” from Trump “regarding the Russian Federation.” Pientka documented two questions asked by then-candidate Trump as well as comments from both Trump and Flynn while never identifying that he was a senior agent working on the Crossfire Hurricane team probing Flynn and other members of the Trump campaign at the time.
Former FBI general counsel James A. Baker conceded to the OIG that Pientka was present “on the off chance that somebody said something that might be useful.”
Trump and his associates, however, were under the impression that the sole purpose of the meeting was to receive a classified defensive briefing.
Thus, the FBI’s controversial Crossfire Hurricane probe team investigating members of the Trump campaign not only sent an agent to a standard defensive briefing with Trump and Flynn without informing them but also recorded comments of theirs in the official counter-intelligence case file.
Flynn, at the time, was already a target of the FBI probe as the previous day the FBI opened a formal counterintelligence investigation against him and just two days prior — on August 15, 2016 — Strzok texted his former lover, Lisa Page, about an “insurance policy.”
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in [FBI deputy director] Andy [McCabe]’s office—that there’s no way he [Trump] gets elected—but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” Strzok wrote. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40…”
Moreover, Pientka, who conducted the briefing, told the OIG that he used the occasion as an opportunity to study Flynn’s behavior and mannerisms just in case the FBI needed to eventually conduct a subject interview of Flynn.
Indeed, Pientka himself was the very FBI agent who, on January 24, 2017, conducted, along with Strzok, an in-person interview with Flynn in connection with the FBI’s investigation of him.
As Breitbart News previously reported, the case against Flynn was on the verge of being closed on January 4, 2017, for lack of evidence until Strzok intervened to keep the case open that same day, telling an unknown individual at the time that the “7th floor [is] involved,” an apparent reference to senior FBI leadership figures at the bureau’s headquarters.
Notes from Strzok and Pientka reveal that neither believed Flynn lied during their interview.
Regardless, the special counsel charged Flynn with just that — lying to the agents, with Flynn pleading guilty as part of a plea deal. However, he later withdrew his guilty plea with the DOJ dismissing the case following the discovery of exculpatory evidence that was being withheld, including Strzok’s notes.
McCabe’s faulty memory on sending Pientka:
The IG report writes that Andrew McCabe, who served under Comey as the FBI’s deputy director, “acknowledged that it was possible he was part of a conversation about whether SSA 1 (Pientka) should handle the briefing because of his involvement with Crossfire Hurricane, but said he could not recall any such conversation.”
While McCabe claims he couldn’t recall participating in any discussions about using Crossfire Hurricane agent Pientka to brief the unsuspecting Trump and Flynn, James Baker — the former FBI general counsel — sang a different tune.
Baker recalled that discussions about using Pientka as the FBI briefer occurred at higher levels within the FBI and those discussions included himself, McCabe, Strzok, and, possibly, Lisa Page. Also involved in those discussions was the FBI’s top counterintelligence agent, Bill Priestap, Baker recalled.
Pientka on using briefing to further investigative matters:
Pientka told the OIG that the briefing provided him “the opportunity to gain assessment and possibly have some level of familiarity with [Flynn]. So, should we get to the point where we need to do a subject interview … I would have that to fall back on.”
When asked to explain what he meant by “assessment,” Pientka said he was referring to Flynn’s “overall mannerisms”:
“That overall mannerisms and then also if there was anything specific to Russia, or anything specific to our investigation that was mentioned by him, or quite frankly we had an … investigation, right,” Pientka said. “And any of the other two individuals in the room, if they, any kind of admission, or overhear, whatever it was, I was there to record that.”
Baker, meanwhile, told the OIG that he didn’t raise any concerns about using Pientka as the briefer because “[h]e was not there to induce anybody to say anything. … He was not there to do an undercover operation or … elicit some type of statement or testimony. … He was there on the off chance that somebody said something that might be useful.”
Baker using briefing to gather information on Trump:
Baker further conceded that the purpose of placing Pientka at the briefing was to observe if anyone at the briefing said anything of relevance to the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane probe of alleged collusion:
“[I]f somebody said something, you want someone in the room who knew enough about the investigation that they would be able to understand the significance of something, or some type of statement, whereas … a regular briefer who didn’t know anything about that might just let it go, and it might not even register with them,” Baker said. “And so … that was the reason to have [Pientka] there.”
Baker’s reference to “somebody” was a clear reference to anyone present at the briefing, including Trump himself.
Briefing memorialized in Electronic Communication:
The IG report documents how the conversation between Pientka, Trump, and Flynn was memorialized in an Electronic Communication (EC) and added to the Crossfire Hurricane file.
The report states that “woven into the briefing summary are questions posed to SSA 1 [Pientka] by Trump and Flynn, and SSA 1’s (Pientka) responses, as well as comments made by Trump and Flynn.”
Earlier in the report, two questions from Trump that were documented in the file were referenced.
The language in the IG report indicated that the office was taken aback by the use of Pientka to brief Trump and Flynn:
We asked Baker whether he recalled any discussion about the potential chilling effect on, and the FBI’s participation in, future presidential transition briefings if the FBI’s use of SSA 1 (Pientka) in this manner became known. Baker told us that he did not recall that issue being discussed, and added that the use of SSA 1 (Pientka) was focused on the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation and Russian activities, including any directed at the Trump campaign. It was not the intention to collect any “political intelligence about campaign strategy, about campaign personalities, or anything that could be used in any political way.”
A few paragraphs earlier, the report stated:
We asked SSA 1 (Pientka) whether he was aware of any discussions within the FBI about the appropriateness of the FBI using an ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] strategic intelligence briefing for a presidential candidate, organized by the [ODNI] as part of the presidential transition process, as an opportunity to gather potentially relevant investigative information about or from a staff member who is the subject of an FBI investigation.
Pientka responded that he did not recall if there were any such discussions, but that if there were, they would have occurred at levels above him. He also told the OIG that he did not have any personal concerns with the plan.
This isn’t the only time an FBI member surreptitiously met with Trump without informing him that he was being investigated and then proceeding to memorialize the conversation in the case file investigating the Trump campaign.
As Breitbart News first reported, a different OIG report provided new context to Comey’s infamous classified briefing to then-President-elect Trump about “salacious” material inside the anti-Trump dossier.
That IG report relates that prior to the briefing, FBI members on Comey’s team discussed the need to memorialize the exchanges between Comey and Trump during the private briefing in Trump Tower on January 6, 2017, in case Trump made any statements relevant to the agency’s Russia probe. In other words, the FBI plotted to stealthily use statements Trump made to Comey in a private briefing in order to inform their Russia collusion investigation.
The IG further relates that Comey went on to do just that. He had a laptop waiting for him in the FBI’s van where he immediately began memorializing the private talk. Comey also promptly provided a “quick download” of the Trump briefing to members of the FBI’s Russia collusion team via a secured video conference.
In an interview with NBC News after the release of the Horowitz IG report, Attorney General William Barr excoriated the previous administration. “From a civil liberties standpoint, the greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government used the apparatus of the state … both to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election,” Barr said. He added that this was the first time in history that “counterintelligence techniques” were used against a presidential campaign.
Despite Barr appointing U.S. Attorney John Durham last year to investigate issues related to the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, Durham has yet to expose any findings.
Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.