When the FBI gave candidate Donald Trump his first intelligence briefing in 2016 and warned that foreign agents might try to infiltrate his campaign, Trump asked, “Are the Russians bad?” according to an official summary of the meeting obtained by Politico.
The summary was filed as part of Operation Hurricane, the code name for the FBI investigation launched in August 2016 into suspected Kremlin interference in that year’s election and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
Trump-appointed director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified and released the summary of the briefing this week at the behest of senate Republicans looking to present the FBI as targeting Trump even before his election.
But Trump’s own comments about Russia, related in the FBI summary, place him in a less-than-favourable light — revealing him to be either incredibly gullible and unsophisticated in his understanding, or deliberately disingenuous about Russia.
Michael Flynn, who would later go on to be Trump’s national security adviser, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Trump’s transition team leader, were also at the 13-minute briefing, in which FBI agent Joe Pientka presented them with the basics of the threat to US security.
According to Pientka’s summary, Trump asked him if the Russians were more dangerous than the Chinese because they have more operatives in the US.
The agent said both countries are bad and told the men that the number of operatives was “not an indicator of the severity of the threat,” according to the document.
The FBI agent then shared that when he told Trump and his team that the US is a “world leader in counterintelligence,” Trump asked: “Russia, too?”
According to the summary, Trump also asked which country, Russia or China, was worse when it came to violations of nuclear testing bans and was told: “They are both bad, but Russia is worse.”
“Trump and Christie turned toward each other, and Christie commented, ‘I’m shocked,’” Pientka wrote of their reactions to that information.
Pientka also said he warned the men that foreign agents might try to approach their relatives, friends and campaign staff in the US to obtain “information pertaining to political, economic, energy, technology and military policy/plans of the US” in order to “collect inside information to give their country a competitive advantage over the U.S.”
Trump was also advised to take special care with phone and electronic communications that could be hacked, according to the summary. Trump has repeatedly used his personal cell phone for official conversations, despite warnings from aides not to do so.
Pientka, who would continue to be part of the Russia investigation, noted in his summary of the meeting that he was on the alert for any comments on Russia from the Trump team. “During the [intelligence] briefs, writer actively listened for topics or questions regarding the Russian Federation,” he wrote.
Former White House secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News Friday that the transcript is proof the FBI was out to “take down” Trump. But the transcript clearly shows Pientka offering advice to Trump and his team on how to deal with possible overtures by foreign agents. He was not questioning them.
At the time of the briefing, the FBI had disturbing indications of Russian interference in the 2016 election, including a Kremlin-orchestrated hack of emails from the Democratic National Committee, which were published by WikiLeaks and benefited the Trump campaign.
Despite his repeated insistence that the probe into Russian election interference was a “witch hunt,” Trump has also attacked his predecessor Barack Obama for not being aggressive enough in investigating Russia’s actions.
Robert Mueller’s special counsel report last year concluded that the “Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” in a way that “favoured” Trump. The report also noted numerous contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Kremlin representatives.
By 2016, Trump had a long business history with Russia, and was even working to get a Trump tower built in Moscow. Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, told a golf journalist in 2014 that the Trump Organisation had “all the funding we need out of Russia” — which he later denied saying.