Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his staff kept Republican members of that committee in the dark about a pivotal interview of key Russiagate figure Joe Pientka, multiple sources familiar with Thursday’s proceedings told The Federalist.
Graham and his committee investigative staff, helmed by chief investigative counsel Zach Somers, did not inform Republican members of the committee about the interview, multiple Judiciary Committee sources told The Federalist. Even Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has sought an interview with Pientka since 2018, was not told about Thursday’s interview, according to a spokesman for his office.
“Sen. Grassley’s staff was not aware this interview was happening,” a spokesman for the Iowa senator said. He added that Grassley and his staff had been “interested in speaking with Pientka for a while.”
“We were not informed” of the interview of Pientka, another top aide to a Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee told The Federalist.
Pientka, a career FBI agent who voluntarily agreed to be interviewed by Senate investigators on Thursday, is at the center of multiple investigations of FBI abuses during the course of the bureau’s anti-Trump investigations both before and after the 2016 elections. Pientka was the agent who in August of 2016 used a fake so-called “defensive briefing” to spy on Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, and Chris Christie during the heat of the presidential campaign. Pientka, along with fired former FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok, was also part of the illegal ambush interview of then-White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in January of 2017.
A sprawling Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation of the FBI’s behavior in signing illegal spy warrants against former Trump campaign affiliate Carter Page excoriated Pientka for his actions during the FBI’s investigation of Trump. According to a 434-page report summarizing the results of the OIG investigation, Pientka knew several key claims made in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant application to spy on Page were false, but never informed the federal court that examines FISA applications of those facts. The OIG found that Pientka also knew that claims in the bogus Steele dossier, compiled by former foreign agent Christopher Steele and funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, were false, but similarly did not inform the FISA court of those errors.
The OIG also admonished Pientka for setting up a fake “defensive briefing” on counterintelligence threats to instead spy on a presidential candidate and his top staff.
Sources on the Judiciary Committee who spoke to The Federalist were baffled as to why Graham and his staff did not inform all committee members and staff of the Pientka interview, given that it might be their only bite at the apple to interview him and get answers about what happened in 2016 and 2017. One senior Senate aide told The Federalist that their biggest concern was that the lack of full staff and member participation, especially from those with the most detailed knowledge of the FBI’s behavior during its investigation of Russian collusion, might leave key investigative stones unturned.
Another source familiar with the interview said that no documents were introduced as exhibits or shown to Pientka as part of the interview, which was reported to go on for several hours. A spokesman for Graham did not respond when asked whether Graham’s Judiciary Committee staff entered any of the reams of documents about Pientka’s work on the Russia case for the FBI into the record during the interview. Because The Federalist does not have access to the transcript of the interview, it is unable to independently confirm whether Pientka was confronted with any documents or exhibits during the course of his questioning by congressional staff.
Current and former staff for the committee said the failure to inform the full Judiciary Committee of the interview ran afoul of previous committee precedents regarding notification. While Republican members of the Judiciary Committee were not given the opportunity to ask questions of Pientka, staff for two senators who are not on the committee — Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) — were invited to attend the interview of Pientka.
A long-time Senate aide said the practice under previous chairmen of the committee was to invite all members of the committee to attend.
“The Ranking Member didn’t determine who participated and off-committee Democrats definitely didn’t get priority over on-committee Republicans,” the aide told The Federalist.
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, told The Federalist that its reporting about the interview of Pientka was “flat wrong.”
“If you go with it you will end up with egg on your face,” Bishop wrote.
When pressed for specific claims that were inaccurate, Bishop did not respond. Bishop also did not respond when asked to provide evidence of any formal notice to all committee members and staff informing them of the scheduling of the Joe Pientka interview.
Taylor Reidy, a spokeswoman for Graham on the Judiciary Committee, did not dispute that Graham and his staff failed to inform the full committee about the interview of Pientka. Instead, Reidy wrote in an e-mail to The Federalist that “[t]he Committee will not confirm that it interviewed Pientka.”
Graham “stays in contact with his fellow committee members regarding the status of the investigation,” she wrote.