FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign


WASHINGTON — In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would likely try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter. 

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies. 

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. 

The Clinton campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.

The briefings were led by counterintelligence specialists from the FBI, the sources said. They were timed to occur around the period when the candidates began receiving classified intelligence, the officials said, which put them at greater risk for being targeted by foreign spies. Trump's first intelligence briefing as Republican nominee was Aug. 17, 2016, sources told NBC News at the time. 

Trump was "briefed and warned" at the session about potential espionage threats from Russia, two former law enforcement officials familiar with the sessions told NBC News. A source close to the White House said their position is that Trump was unaware of the contacts between his campaign and Russians. 

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CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Eric Trump on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protestors and members of the media. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/WireImage)
Donald Trump's daughter Tiffany speaks to delegates on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. About 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland this week for the Republican National Convention, at which Donald Trump is expected to be formally nominated to run for the US presidency in November. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Donald Trump, Jr. addresses the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Donald Trump, Jr. addresses the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Family of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump make their way to the New York delegation to participate in the roll call during the second day of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Delegates from New York and Donald Trump's family including Donald, Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and Tiffany celebrate after the nominating process for the state of New York during the second day of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Tiffany Trump leaves the stage on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protestors and members of the media. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/WireImage)
Eric Trump (R), son of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and his wife Lara Yunaska applaud at the end of Donald Trump Jr's speech on the second day of the Republican National Convention (RNC), July 19, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Delegates from New York and Donald Trump's family including Donald, Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and Tiffany celebrate after the nominating process for the state of New York during the second day of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Ivanka Trump on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protestors and members of the media. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/WireImage)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: Tiffany Trump speaks at the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protestors and members of the media. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/WireImage)
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"That the Republican and Democrat nominee for President received a standardized briefing on counter-intelligence is hardly a news story," said Raj Shah, a White House spokesman. "That NBC News hears about the contents of this classified conversation due to an inappropriate leak is a news story." 

It's unclear whether the warning about Russia was passed on to other campaign officials. 

Still, the revelation that the Trump campaign was warned about spying threats from Russia and other adversaries, which has not been previously reported, casts a new light on the Trump campaign's dealings with Russians in the months before the November election. 

As a former senator and secretary of state, Clinton would have been familiar with counterintelligence briefings, having already held a top-level security clearance. Trump, who was in his first political campaign, may have been hearing some of the information for the first time

Trump would have been told, "If you see these kinds of contacts please let us know about them so we can keep you updated on the threat picture," said Frank Montoya, a former FBI counterintelligence agent and supervisor who retired in 2016. 

The situation was complicated by the fact that the FBI had already become aware of contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russia, and was beginning to investigate further. Former CIA Director John Brennan has said he told the FBI about a pattern of contacts the CIA observed between members of the Trump team and Russians, and former FBI Director James Comey said the bureau then began investigating in July 2016. 

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Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in prior to testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 8: People watch a ticker tape display showing headlines of the days news that former FBI Director James Comey will testify at a Senate hearingon Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump on June 8, 2017 in New York City. Comey said that President Donald Trump pressured him to drop the FBI's investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and demanded Comey's loyalty during the one-on-one meetings he had with president. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
The witness table where former FBI Director James Comey will face the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and testify on June 8 about his meetings with President Trump sits at the ready in Washington, U.S., June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, center delivers opening remarks before the start of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Comey in prepared remarks to the committee said U.S. President Donald Trump sought his loyalty and urged him to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Former FBI Director James Comey arrives to testify during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People wait in line hours aheads of time for the start of former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 08: Former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara attends the Senate Intelligence Committee where FBI Director James Comey is sent to testify in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. Comey said that President Donald Trump pressured him to drop the FBI's investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and demanded Comey's loyalty during the one-on-one meetings he had with president. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Russian Federation Efforts to Interfere in the 2016 U.S. Elections" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
People wait in line hours aheads of time for the start of former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Preparations are made before former FBI Director James Comey testifies during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is sworn in to a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Comey in prepared remarks to the committee said U.S. President Donald Trump sought his loyalty and urged him to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The gavel and placard for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, sit on a table in the hearing room ahead of testimony by former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Comey in prepared remarks to the committee said U.S. President Donald Trump sought his loyalty and urged him to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Former FBI Director James Comey testifies during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 8, 2017. Fired FBI director James Comey took the stand Thursday in a crucial Senate hearing, repeating explosive allegations that President Donald Trump badgered him over the highly sensitive investigation Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Capitol police officers stand outside the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing room ahead of testimony by former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Comey in prepared remarks to the committee said U.S. President Donald Trump sought his loyalty and urged him to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Former FBI Director James Comey arrives to testify during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Senator Mark Warner(C)D-VA and Vice Chairman, Intelligence Committee and Senator Richard Burr(R), Chairman, Intelligence Committee greet former FBI Director James Comey as he arrives to testify during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Former FBI Director James Comey takes the oath before he testifies during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former FBI Director James Comey takes the oath before he testifies during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC, June 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Montoya and other former FBI officials told NBC News the FBI would not have wanted to compromise that investigation by saying too much in the counterintelligence briefing of Trump. 

By the time of the warning in late July or August, at least seven Trump campaign officials had been in contact with Russians or people linked to Russia, according to public reports. There is no public evidence that the campaign reported any of that to the FBI. 

After the FBI warning, the candidate's son, Donald Trump Jr., exchanged Twitter messages in September with Wikileaks, which the U.S. intelligence community publicly accused in October of acting as an agent in Russia's covert operation to interfere in the election. 

For example, on Sept 20, WikiLeaks wrote to Trump Jr. that "a PAC run anti-Trump site putintrump.org is about to launch," according to messages first published by the Atlantic magazine. "The PAC is a recycled pro-Iraq war PAC. We have guessed the password. It is 'putintrump.' See 'About' for who is behind it. Any comments?" 

The next morning, the Atlantic reported, Trump Jr. responded to WikiLeaks. "Off the record I don't know who that is, but I'll ask around. Thanks." 

Trump Jr.'s lawyer, Alan Futerfas, did not dispute the Atlantic's reporting. 

That same month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator running the Trump campaign's foreign policy operation, met with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in his Senate office -- a meeting he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearing. (Sessions said he routinely met with foreign officials as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.) 

"If I give you a defensive briefing and the illicit behavior continues, I'm not going to just scratch my head over that, especially if I see continued interference," Montoya said. "If we're telling these guys stuff and they are not acting on it, then we're going to keep that as evidence." 

Frank Figliuzzi, a former head of FBI counterintelligence and an NBC News analyst, said counterintelligence briefings "provide an opportunity for investigative subjects to be transparent with the bureau and to come back if such contacts are occurring because of admonishments by the bureau." 

If they fail to do that, he said, "a couple of factors could be at play: They didn't spread the message to the rest of the team or there is some form of guilty conscience that prohibits them." 

The Trump team had contacts with Russians throughout the campaign. 

In May 2016, Trump Jr. met at a National Rifle Association dinner with a Russian central banker with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin who had previously contacted the campaign saying he wanted to pass on a message from the Russian president to Trump. 

Also in May, Trump was told by campaign aide George Papadopoulos that he had connections with people who could facilitate a meeting between the candidate and Putin, according to a court filing. Papadopoulos had met with a London-based professor two weeks earlier who claimed to have connections to Russian officials, according to court documents. 

In June 2016, Trump Jr. hosted a meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin, and a Russian-American lobbyist. Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also sat in. An email to Trump Jr. setting up the meeting promised incriminating information about Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help the Trump campaign. 

In July 2016, Manafort sent an email offering a private briefing on the Trump campaign to his former business partner, a Russian oligarch with ties to Putin. 

Manafort left the campaign Aug. 19, two days after Trump's first intelligence briefing. 

It's unclear whether the FBI gave any other counterintelligence warnings to the Trump team before the election.

In September 2017, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the FBI whether it ever briefed or warned Trump campaign officials about alleged attempts by the Russian government to infiltrate the campaign. 

"The FBI has reportedly given `defensive briefings' during previous presidential campaigns to warn candidates and campaign staff of potential foreign influence and counterintelligence concerns," Grassley's office said in a statement. "Such warnings allow unwitting organizations and individuals to take defensive actions to protect themselves." 

After Trump took office, The New York Times reported that the FBI warned Hope Hicks, Trump's communications director, about what they deemed suspicious emails from Russians. 

Senior F.B.I. counterintelligence agents met with Ms. Hicks in the White House Situation Room at least twice, gave her the names of the Russians who had contacted her, and said that they were not who they claimed to be, the Times reported. 

The Times said there is no evidence that Ms. Hicks did anything improper—but that intelligence officials became alarmed by introductory emails that she received from Russian government addresses in the weeks after Trump's election.

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