NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M y column over the weekend was about the Obama-Biden administration’s exploitation of the government’s intelligence and law-enforcement apparatus to investigate Donald Trump, who was then the opposition Republican Party’s presidential candidate. The essence of this investigation is palpable from an August 2016 incident: The FBI covertly surveilled Trump by capitalizing on the U.S. intelligence community’s practice of providing a counterintelligence and security briefing to the nominees of the two major political parties.
The exploitation of executive power to monitor the opposition party’s presidential candidate is a Watergate-level abuse of power. That is why Obama and FBI apologists have steadfastly refused to cop to it.
A major element of their story is that the faux briefing given to Trump was actually a defensive briefing. We are to believe its purpose was to warn Trump that his campaign could be infiltrated by covert agents working for Russia.
The significance of the “defensive briefing” canard, and the importance of refuting it, still seems lost on many of Trump’s Russiagate defenders.
Political spying is an impeachable offense. Democrats have countered with the ridiculous “defensive briefing” yarn because they understand this. As I demonstrate in Ball of Collusion, the decision not to give Trump a defensive briefing is ironclad proof that he was the target of the investigation, and therefore that the Obama-Biden administration was guilty of political spying.
That “defensive briefing” lie should now be put to rest, thanks to the recently declassified FBI report about the session. Yes, one big takeaway is that the FBI used the “briefing” as an investigative operation. But don’t miss the forest for the trees. Even on its own deceptive terms, the faux briefing was neither portrayed nor conducted by the FBI as defensive to warn the Trump campaign; it was a standard counterintelligence and security briefing for presidential candidates.
Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Trump never got a defensive briefing. Common sense tells you why: Our intelligence agencies do not give defensive briefings to someone they consider the main suspect. The main suspect is deemed the agent of a foreign power against whom others need defending. You don’t warn the main suspect that you are trying to catch him; you investigate the main suspect to try to make the case. It is the people around the main suspect who need a warning, not the other way around.
I first encountered the gambit to depict the August 2016 session as a defensive briefing a couple of years ago, as a panelist on a Fox News program. Floated by one of the ubiquitous, self-described “Democratic strategists,” it seemed out of left field. I countered that this was wrong, that the session was a standard intelligence briefing given to presidential candidates. But there wasn’t enough time to explain the difference between that and a defensive briefing.
Given all that is now publicly known, the defensive-briefing claim should be so discredited that even partisan Democrats refrain from invoking it. But no. A little over a week ago, I was invited to discuss Russiagate on Martha MacCallum’s Fox News program. The format had me following Representative Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.), a slippery partisan who put so much stock in the bogus Steele dossier that he has seamlessly become one of the last of the “collusion” dead-enders. When the question of why Trump’s campaign had not been given a defensive briefing came up, Swalwell insisted that it had gotten one.
Swalwell and others persist because nonsense sticks if it is repeated often enough, especially if it goes unchallenged. An example: In an otherwise excellent report at The Federalist, Sean Davis describes the August 2016 session as “a so-called defensive” briefing (indeed, the headline of his story says “Declassified Documents Show FBI Used ‘Defensive’ Briefing in 2016 to Spy on Donald Trump”).
Sean’s main point is unassailable: What the FBI did should not be regarded as any kind of a briefing for Trump; the FBI was using the occasion to spy on Trump. Still, setting aside that the session was a ruse, it was not a “so-called defensive briefing.” The only people calling it a defensive briefing are Democrats and shills for the FBI who realize that the failure to give Trump a defensive briefing blows up their story that Trump was not the Obama administration’s main target. The FBI never considered the session a defensive briefing because, manifestly, it was not one.
Here are the facts.
On the afternoon of August 17, 2016, Trump, who had just recently become the Republican nominee for president, went from his campaign headquarters at Trump Tower to the FBI’s New York Field Office in Lower Manhattan. He was accompanied by two of his top campaign advisers: former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was slated to run the transition if Trump were elected, and retired Army general Michael Flynn, who would be named national-security adviser. In a room secure for discussing classified information, the trio met with FBI agent Joe Pientka, along with two briefing officers from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Agent Pientka presented himself as the FBI briefer for the occasion. Trump, Christie, and Flynn would have had no reason to suspect otherwise: In addition to being the nation’s premier law-enforcement agency, the FBI is our domestic security service, responsible for investigating hostile foreign-intelligence activities in our country. In reality, though, Pientka was functioning as the case agent in the Trump-Russia investigation (codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane” by the Bureau). The FBI viewed the briefing as an investigative event for purposes of both a counterintelligence probe (regarding suspected complicity by Trump and his campaign in Russia’s hacking operation to influence the election) and a criminal probe (premised on the ludicrous notion that Trump and Flynn were agents of Russia and thus criminally liable for failing to register as such under the Foreign Agent Registration Act).
Because it was an investigative event, Pientka filed a report about it. That report is the recently declassified and disclosed document discussed in my column last weekend. In the report, memorializing what he said at the session, Pientka twice explicitly described the session as a “counterintelligence and security briefing to the Republican candidate for U.S. President Donald J. Trump, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and General (retired) Michael Flynn” (emphasis added).
Trump and his advisers were told that the counterintelligence and security briefing has a history in presidential campaigns. The FBI provided the secure room for the session “in support of ODNI briefings provided to U.S. presidential candidates and two of their advisors.” Trump was told there were established “ground rules” that put some subjects off-limits — i.e., the briefers would not answer any questions from the candidates about current administration policy and active intelligence operations. That is, Trump and his two advisers were on equal footing with Clinton and two of her advisers. This was not a defensive briefing peculiar to Trump. It was not provided to alert him to suspected Russian infiltration in his campaign. It was a standard presidential-candidate briefing on global threats provided by the FBI and ODNI to both candidates.
Pientka proceeded to explain, “I will provide you with a counterintelligence and security brief that will give you a baseline on the methodology used by Foreign Intelligence Services to the detriment of U.S. National Security.” He then described in a general way how foreign intelligence services operate against American interests. He did not limit his comments to Russian intelligence services. Also included were other hostile powers, such as China, in connection with various threat categories (e.g., cyber threats).
Significantly, the unredacted portion of the report indicates that the discussion was not specific to Trump’s campaign. There was no admonition that the FBI feared Moscow was using specific people posing as Trump advisers or supporters to influence Trump’s campaign in Moscow’s favor.
This was completely consistent with the Obama administration’s determination not to inform Trump about the Trump-Russia investigation. That was the topic of discussion in the Oval Office on January 5, 2017, when the Bureau’s then-director, James Comey, met with President Obama, Vice President Biden, then–national-security adviser Susan Rice, and then–deputy attorney general Sally Yates. And the stratagem was put in action the next day: Director Comey, in briefing Trump on Russia’s interference in the election, told the president-elect about the salacious “pee tape” allegation that the FBI had mined from the Steele dossier; but he withheld the more consequential fact that the Bureau was investigating Trump and his campaign on suspicion of conspiring with the Putin regime in cyberespionage.
The failure of the Obama administration and the FBI to give the Trump campaign a defensive briefing has also been the subject of congressional testimony. In its 2018 report on Russia’s interference in the election, having interviewed top Obama-administration officials, the House Intelligence Committee related that Comey and his then-deputy, Andrew McCabe, had discussed with then–Attorney General Loretta Lynch whether to give the Trump campaign a defensive briefing. Lynch acknowledged that no such briefing was provided, but said she could not explain why.
On April 10, 2019, under questioning by Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) at an Appropriations Committee hearing, Attorney General Bill Barr observed that the Trump campaign had not been given a defensive briefing. Senator Graham noted it was odd that the Justice Department never alerted the Trump campaign that it might be “targeted by a foreign entity.” AG Barr responded, “That is one of the questions I have. . . . I feel normally the campaign would have been advised of this. . . . They had two former U.S. attorneys . . . Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani involved in the campaign and I don’t understand why the campaign was not advised.”
In fact, as Barr would later note, Trump actually had three former U.S. attorneys in his campaign — Jeff Sessions had been one, too. His point, of course, was that because the campaign included top advisers with impeccable national-security credentials, the FBI would normally have had no hesitation in sharing a warning about possible Russian infiltration.
Moreover, at a Senate hearing about the Mueller report on May 1, 2019, Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) pointed out to Barr that the FBI appeared to have covertly used “counterintelligence briefings for the Trump transition team as intelligence-gathering operations.” We now know for certain that the Bureau did just that.
Later in the same hearing, the attorney general explained to Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) that when a U.S. intelligence agency learns “that somebody is being targeted by a hostile intelligence service, then one form of defensive briefing is to go and to alert that person to the risk.” Yet, he related, the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, had never been alerted that the Russians were trying to undermine public confidence in the 2016 election. Referring specifically to the unimpeachable national-security credentials of Christie, Giuliani, and Sessions, Barr stated:
If you are concerned about interference in the election and you have substantial people involved in the campaign who are former U.S. attorneys — you had three former U.S. attorneys there in the campaign — I don’t know why the Bureau would not have gone and given a defensive briefing.
Subsequently, the AG explicitly distinguished a “defensive briefing” from the August briefing Pientka gave to Trump: “I have been told . . . that a lesser kind of briefing, a security briefing that generally discusses, you know, general threats apparently was given to the campaign in August.” That is different, Barr explained, from a “defensive briefing . . . where you are told . . . you are a specific target” of a foreign intelligence service.
Donald Trump and his campaign were never given a defensive briefing to warn of Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Clearly, that is because the Obama-Biden administration and the FBI baselessly theorized that Trump was the one conspiring with Russia. In the Russiagate narrative, as a candidate and then as the president, Trump was the perp, not the victim. They weren’t looking to warn him. They were looking to nail him — or, at least, to persuade the country that he just might be a Russian mole.