WASHINGTON – Justice Department and intelligence community leaders conferred twice with top Republican and Democratic lawmakers Thursday, hoping to defuse a partisan conflict over the FBI’s use of a confidential source to aid the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.
After hours of discussion, though, there seemed to be little in the way of resolution. Instead, the meetings spawned classic Washington fights over who was there, who wasn’t, and how it all might look.
Contradicting its earlier position, the White House allowed top Democrats to join their Republican colleagues, and also dispatched two of its own representatives – Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House lawyer Emmet Flood – to relay a message from the president.
That raised some suspicion, as the matter being discussed concerned an ongoing criminal investigation involving the Trump campaign. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told a reporter that the presence of Flood, who is handling the White House response to the special counsel investigation, was “a bit odd.”
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House Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam Schiff, Calif., said in a statement that Flood’s “involvement – in any capacity – was entirely improper, and I made this clear to him.”
“His presence only underscores what Rudy Giuliani said: the President’s legal team expects to use information gleaned improperly from the Justice Department or the President’s allies in Congress to their legal advantage,” Schiff said. Giuliani joined the president’s legal team last month.
The White House insisted that Flood and Kelly made only “brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the President’s desire for as much openness as possible under the law.”
The first briefing, which lasted about an hour at the Justice Department, went to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Schiff. The second, which lasted slightly longer on Capitol Hill, went to the Gang of Eight, which includes the Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, as well as the top Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence committees. Ryan did not attend the second meeting, citing a scheduling conflict.
Those presenting from the law enforcement and intelligence communities Thursday included Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats.
The FBI’s use of the confidential source has roiled Washington for the past week, as President Donald Trump has repeatedly cast the man as a spy implanted in his campaign for political purposes. Nunes has sought documents – over the Justice Department’s objection – about the source, even threatening to hold in contempt law enforcement leaders who didn’t comply.
The Justice Department already had asked its inspector general to explore Trump’s allegation of political spying, though that has done little to appease the president and his conservative allies.
After meeting with Trump on Monday, Justice Department and FBI officials agreed to speak with Nunes – which they viewed as a small concession, as they had previously offered a briefing that Nunes did not attend.
Some had feared Trump might go a step further and order the department to turn over documents it believed should not go to Nunes. That might have provoked a catastrophic confrontation – with Justice Department leaders quitting in protest or refusing the order and forcing Trump to fire them.
Briefers from the Justice Department brought documents with them to the Gang of Eight meeting, but lawmakers did not ask to see them, two people briefed on the matter said. The people said Nunes said nothing at all at that meeting. In resisting disclosures about the source, officials had cited concerns about his safety and worries about damaging the United States’ relationship with intelligence partners.
But after two briefings Thursday, there were no signs of an imminent showdown. Ryan said afterward that the Intelligence Committee had “the responsibility to ask tough questions of the executive branch” and that the Justice Department was cooperating.
“I appreciate the department arranging today’s briefing,” he said. “As always, I cannot and will not comment on a classified session. I look forward to the prompt completion of the intelligence committee’s oversight work in this area now that they are getting the cooperation necessary for them to complete their work while protecting sources and methods.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to comment as he left the classified briefing, but said in an interview with NPR that nothing he heard changed his support for the ongoing Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller III.
“The two investigations going on that I think will give us the answers to the questions that you raise – the [inspector general] investigation in the Justice Department and the Mueller investigation,” McConnell told NPR. “I support both of them, and I don’t really have anything to add to this subject based upon the Gang of Eight briefing that we had today, which was classified.”
Democrats, meanwhile, said that based on the information they had received, the president’s claims of a political spy were unsupported.
“Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., and Schiff said in a statement.
The FBI’s source is Stefan Halper, a former University of Cambridge professor and veteran of past GOP administrations who had contact with three advisers to the campaign when Trump was running for president to discuss foreign policy. Trump has railed about him for days, tweeting just before the meetings Thursday, “Large dollars were paid to the Spy, far beyond normal. Starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. SPYGATE – a terrible thing!”
That allegation, an apparent reference to contracts Halper had with the Defense Department for research, overstates Halper’s role based on what is known about him so far. It is common practice for the FBI to use confidential sources to help advance investigations, and they are not considered spies.
The substance of Halper’s conduct has been almost a sideshow in recent days, as lawmakers, the White House and the Justice Department have instead debated who would be invited to each briefing, and where they would be held.
The guest lists were uncertain even hours before the meetings were to take place. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said Tuesday that only Nunes and Gowdy would be briefed, because they were the only ones to request information.
“To my knowledge, the Democrats have not requested that information, so I would refer you back to them on why they would consider themselves randomly invited to see something they’ve never asked to,” she said at the time.
By Wednesday night, the White House had agreed to a separate, later briefing with the Gang of Eight, though that drew fierce criticism from Democrats.
“While it’s a good thing that the Gang of Eight will be briefed, the separate meeting with a known partisan whose only intent is to undermine the Mueller investigation makes no sense and should be called off,” Schumer said early Thursday. “What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?” The senator was apparently referring to Nunes as a “known partisan.”
Soon it was made public that Schiff would be allowed to attend the first briefing – meaning both gatherings would be bipartisan. That controversy, though, quickly gave way to a new one, when Flood was spotted leaving the Justice Department after the first meeting had ended.
The White House said in a statement that neither Flood nor Kelly “actually attended the meetings but did make brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the President’s desire for as much openness as possible under the law.”
“They also conveyed the President’s understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government,” the statement said. “After making their brief comments they departed before the meetings officially started.”