Lewandowski: “There was no briefing provided by anybody from the Obama-Biden administration, members of the intelligence community or the FBI to our campaign that I — when I was present or during my tenure as the campaign manager.”
Gaetz: “Man, that’s just baffling to me. I mean our democracy is so precious. We have to cherish it. We have to protect it, and yet when the Obama-Biden administration knew that there might be nefarious efforts to interfere or co-opt or in any way disturb our democracy, they didn’t say anything to you. Now, as you sit here today, having watched these facts unfold, do you have any, any rationale as to why maybe the Clapper-Brennan-Comey-Obama-Biden team didn’t want to give the Trump campaign a fair defensive briefing about the threats that we were facing?”
Lewandowski: “It’s actually unfathomable to me that they didn’t contact the major political nominee for president of the United States and inform them of potential threats against the election process in 2016.”
“According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Russia interfered in the elections of Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, Ukraine and the United States. They specifically targeted the Scottish independence vote, the Brexit vote and Angela Merkel. Despite knowledge of these kinds of election threats, the Obama administration sat idly by — instead of warning the Trump campaign.”
— Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), at the same hearing
“I think they were trying to trap the president. Page 17 of the inspector general’s report points this out. January 6, 2017, they go up to the Trump Tower when it’s President-elect Trump and they’re trying to set him up about a pending investigation. All the while, Mr. Comey’s been telling the president, ‘You’re not under investigation.’ Of course they didn’t give you a defensive briefing during the campaign or even when — up until that date, because they were trying to set him up.”
— Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), at the same hearing
Republican lawmakers said the FBI failed to warn Donald Trump’s campaign about Russian election interference in 2016. It’s not a new talking point, but it seems to have shape-shifted this week into a new form.
In early January 2017, when Trump was president-elect, U.S. officials briefed him about the Russia probe.
It wasn’t his first rodeo. Trump received an intelligence briefing during the campaign, in August 2016, as Attorney General William P. Barr and the FBI have confirmed.
Did that briefing cover Russia’s election interference?
Trump fired Lewandowski from the campaign on June 21, 2016. One week earlier, on June 14, The Washington Post reported that “Russian government hackers penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee.”
The Internet security company CrowdStrike analyzed the DNC breach and on June 15 pointed the finger at Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, two groups of hackers who “engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.”
Then, WikiLeaks posted online thousands of hacked emails on July 22, shortly before the Democratic convention.
Weeks later, after spending two days reviewing classified documents and raw intelligence, John Brennan, then the CIA director, began to warn top officials in the Obama administration about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement.
“One development was a particular source of alarm to Brennan,” The Post’s Greg Miller wrote in his book, “The Apprentice.” “In late July, Russia House delivered a bombshell — intelligence that reached deep inside the Kremlin revealing that Putin himself had authorized a covert operation aimed at destabilizing the American presidential election. The information came from two separate highly sensitive streams of intelligence, and captured the Russian leader, in his own words, declaring the operation’s objective: damage Clinton and help elect Trump.”
At the end of July, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign, dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane.”
At the House hearing this week, several Republicans said the Trump campaign should have been briefed about the Russian threat while Lewandowski was still the campaign manager. But inside the CIA and Obama administration, all hell started breaking loose after he was fired.
The comments from Buck, Gaetz and Jordan also imply that the FBI did not warn the Trump campaign at all about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election.
As was reported at the time, Trump received his first intelligence briefing on Aug. 17, 2016, after he secured the Republican nomination. Two campaign advisers, Chris Christie and Michael Flynn, reportedly attended.
Barr confirmed that the briefing was held. He testified in May to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “a lesser kind of briefing — a security briefing that generally discusses, you know, general threats — apparently was given to the campaign in August.” (Barr initially denied that Trump had been briefed, then corrected his testimony after a break in the hearing.)
When he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked in a 2017 letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray whether the Trump campaign had been given “a defensive briefing or other warning regarding attempts to infiltrate the campaign by people connected with, or compromised by, Russian intelligence.”
In August of 2016 the FBI provided a counterintelligence defensive briefing to then-candidate Donald Trump and other senior campaign officials. This defensive briefing was conducted by an experienced FBI counterintelligence agent and focused on the broad range of threats posed by foreign intelligence entities. Similar briefings were also provided to then-candidate Hillary Clinton and the two Vice Presidential candidates prior to the November election. FBI counterintelligence personnel also provided defensive briefings for both campaigns’ staff prior to the election. The FBI is not aware of any action(s) taken as a result of these briefings.
While the FBI does not maintain a specific policy governing when such briefings are to be provided, as you highlighted in your letter, defensive briefings are an essential FBI counterintelligence tool. These briefings can be provided to any individual with access to information that could be valuable to foreign intelligence actors, to include Executive Branch officials, Members of Congress, or private citizens. By increasing these individuals’ awareness of the indicators and warnings of foreign intelligence threats, they are often better postured to defend themselves and their organizations from foreign intelligence collection.
The FBI response doesn’t mention Russia specifically, but when a briefing is about “the broad range of threats posed by foreign intelligence entities,” how could Russia not come up?
James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence in 2016, told The Fact Checker: “It’s sort of my impression that they did brief both campaigns, at least generically, on potential cyber threats. I can’t testify chapter and verse, month, day and year, when they did this. My impression is they did this with both campaigns.”
Asked whether Russia came up at the briefing, Clapper said: “I don’t know because I wasn’t present during the briefing. I wasn’t personally involved.”
In a closed session with two House committees in December, James B. Comey, who was the FBI director in 2016, said, “With candidates, my recollection is we gave a general counterintelligence briefing about the threat coming from different nations.” Comey, who was fired by Trump, also said, “I have some recollection that they arranged for briefings of the candidates once they were nominated, and then part of that briefing would include a threat briefing from the FBI about the counterintelligence threat.” At another point, Comey said, “I know there were counterintelligence briefings given to both campaigns that covered the threat, I think, from the major adversaries of the United States.”
The FBI declined to comment. The White House did not respond to our questions. A message for Christie was not returned.
CNN and NBC News have reported based on anonymous sources that Russia did come up at Trump’s briefing (although NBC reported that Trump was first briefed on this July 19, 2016, not in August).
CNN reported: “Trump was personally warned in August 2016 by senior US intelligence officials that foreign adversaries — including Russia — would likely attempt to infiltrate his team or gather intelligence about his campaign, according to sources familiar with the matter.
“The security briefing included information about potential interference by foreign actors, including Russia, according to sources familiar with a memo that detailed the August 2016 briefing. In October 2017, senior Justice Department officials gave lawmakers from both parties a readout on the 2016 briefing after Republicans demanded to see documents about the Russia investigation and related matters.”
According to another CNN report, not only was Trump warned about Russia during the campaign, the Justice Department in October 2017 showed a memo that proved as much to a few lawmakers and their staffs. Aides to Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who was then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, got a firsthand look at the readout of Trump’s August 2016 briefing, and it included Russia, CNN reported. The top Democrat on the intelligence panel, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), and his staff also got a look.
Let’s put things in perspective: Multiple reports had linked Russia to the DNC hack by the time the FBI briefed Trump in August 2016, though U.S. officials were being cagey in their public comments around this time.
President Barack Obama was interviewed July 26, 2016, and did not confirm or deny that Russia was behind the DNC hack but said “anything’s possible.” Clapper spoke at the Aspen Security Forum on July 28 and Brennan on July 29. Both were asked about the Russian connection to the DNC hack. Neither confirmed that Russia was behind it, but both left open the possibility.
At one point, Clapper gave an intriguing response to his interviewer, CNN’s Jim Sciutto. Take a look:
Sciutto: Is it your view that Russia has the intention of if not influencing this election, undermining confidence in the U.S. political process?
Clapper: Well, they are trying to look at things from their vantage I think and they are paranoid and Putin is personally about color revolutions and a potential for color revolution to occur in Russia and of course they see a U.S. conspiracy behind every bush and ascribe a far more impact than we are actually guilty of, but that’s their mindset. And so I think that their approach is they believe that we are trying to influence political developments in Russia, we are trying to effect change and so their natural responses is to retaliate and do onto us as they think we’ve done onto them and so I think that’s again not surprising that they would behave that way.
Sciutto: Now that, you know, I know —
Clapper: And by the way if I could add, of course, the cyber realm opens up a whole range of possibilities for them.
A Gaetz spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
A Buck aide said: “The Trump campaign received a generalized briefing that is standard for presidential campaigns. They did not receive a briefing on the specific threats of Russian interference despite the intelligence agencies having knowledge of the same.”
Jordan spokesman Ian Fury said: “Even if the FBI raised the issue of Russian election interference broadly at the briefing, they did not give a true defensive briefing to then-candidate Trump regarding the potential that his campaign had been infiltrated by Russian operatives.” He added: “If the FBI truly believed that multiple Trump campaign associates may have been working with Russia to influence the election, then they should have told the Trump campaign as much in a defensive briefing. If Russian assets had in fact infiltrated the general election campaign of a presidential candidate, shouldn’t that presidential candidate know about it?”
That’s a different point, and not something we’re fact-checking. At the House hearing this week, the comments from Buck, Gaetz and Jordan implied that the FBI did not warn the Trump campaign at all about Russia’s election interference.
In his letter to the FBI, Grassley raised a related but different question: Did the FBI alert Trump about campaign advisers who were suspected of possibly working in secret for a foreign government, such as Paul Manafort? That’s the concern Jordan is echoing, according to his spokesman.
Then-Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asked Comey about this issue in December. “Do you not recall contemplating whether or not to give the candidate a defensive briefing on individuals that you were at least investigating, not criminally but from a counterintelligence standpoint, for their potential connections with a hostile foreign power?” Comey said: “No. I don’t remember considering that, and I wouldn’t have considered it at the time.”
An investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s help and sought to exploit it, but not enough evidence for conspiracy charges against any campaign official.
The Bottom Line
It’s difficult to imagine how a big flashing red light — the cyberthreat posed by Russia — would not come up for discussion in the August 2016 briefing with Trump, or in subsequent briefings or conversations before the election.
The August briefing covered threats from foreign intelligence entities, according to the FBI. If Russia wasn’t covered, what was the point of the exercise? At the time, Russia was top of mind for U.S. officials monitoring cyberthreats, while multiple reports had linked Russia to the DNC hack.
Comey has said the nominees’ briefings covered “the threat coming from different nations” and “the major adversaries of the United States.” CNN reported that a memo describing these briefings includes Russia, adding that Schiff, his staff and aides to Nunes and Pelosi got a look at it.
Put it all together, and the evidence is as convincing as it gets without official confirmation. But we can’t say for sure what was or wasn’t discussed at the August 2016 briefing, so we won’t be awarding Pinocchios.
If the FBI’s briefing was as generic as various officials have said, the Justice Department should consider releasing the readout to the public to clear the air.
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