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Key Republicans say newly declassified memos prove FBI spied on Trump during intel briefings

The Russia collusion probe "was just a pretext to open up a massive spying operation on Trump’s campaign," former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes says.

Updated: July 24, 2020 - 11:59am

Key Republicans who led the effort to expose FBI abuses in the Russia collusion probe say newly declassified memos show agents improperly spied on candidate Donald Trump in 2016, recording his answers and actions during counterintelligence briefings.

The new memos released Thursday by Director of National intelligence John Ratcliffe detail the FBI's conduct during a mid-August 2016 counterintelligence briefing, Trump's first as the GOP nominee, in which an agent was secretly inserted to gather evidence of later-disproven Russia collusion.

The agent's post-briefing memo recorded near verbatim the specific questions the future president was asking intelligence officials, even comments Trump made about his youngest son, as well as sizing up national security adviser Michael Flynn's behavior,

"Trump asked the following question, 'Joe, are the Russians bad? Because they have more numbers are they worse than the Chinese?'" Agent Joseph Pientka wrote in his summary memo of the briefing with then-candidate Trump. "Writer responded by saying both countries are bad. The numbers of IOs present in the U.S. is not an indicator of the severity of the threat. Writer reminded Trump the Chinese asymmetrical presence in the U.S."

Republicans expressed outage at the tactic.

“Now it’s clear the FBI was spying directly on Donald Trump as early as August 2016. In fact, it looks like the entire Crossfire Hurricane investigation was just a pretext to open up a massive spying operation on Trump’s campaign,” Rep. Dunes, R-Calif., the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee whose report in 2018 unraveled the false narrative of Trump-Russia collusion.

Senate committee chairmen Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who first uncovered the FBI use of briefings to gather evidence against Trump, issued a statement Thursday night saying he new memos "shed light on FBI efforts to co-opt Intel briefings to spy on 2016 Trump campaign."

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the bureau's tactics were unwarranted and "give us more proof that the Deep State within the FBI was working to prevent @realDonaldTrump  from becoming the next President of the United States.

"This is outrageous, and every American should demand accountability for those involved," he tweeted.

The extraordinary notes confirm information first divulged last December by the Justice Department inspector general that the Comey FBI used the August 2016 briefing as a way of sizing up then-candidate Trump and Flynn in the Russia case and gathering evidence against them. 

Memos associated with the meeting show since-fired Agent Peter Strzok and departed FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith were involved in approving the effort by Pientka to use the briefing as an investigative tool instead of just an educational baseline intelligence meeting. Clinesmith was accused in the IG report of altering a key document in the Russia case and has left the bureau, though he has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Pientka's summary memo of the briefing shows the extent to which the FBI was gathering or seeking evidence against Trump and Flynn and likely will bolster claims by Republicans that the bureau was "spying" on Trump when it should have been giving the future president a defensive briefing about Russians seeking influence in the United States.

Some of the observations recorded in the memo seemed to be of little or no investigative value. For instance, after Pientka discussed a matter involving signal intelligence, he recorded verbatim Flynn's response and Trump's mention of his youngest son.

"At this time, Flynn interjected, 'I did SIGINT.' Writer responded that he could then appreciate what our country can do technically to exploit a Tier 1 target and we must extrapolate a Foreign Intelligence Service could do the same to us. Trump then stated, 'Yes I understand it's a dark time. Nothing is safe on computers anymore,'" the memo stated.

"'My son is ten years old. He has a computer and we put a codeword on it. Within ten minutes he broke the codeword and we needed to put another one on the computer. Kids are genius,'" the memo quoted Trump as saying.

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