WASHINGTON ― Top congressional lawmakers and a White House attorney met with Justice Department officials on Thursday to discuss classified information about an FBI informant involved in the investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election. Democrats have denounced the sit-down as inappropriate and contrary to the rule of law.
Republicans had requested the information for weeks, issuing a subpoena and warning top DOJ officials that if they refused they would hold them contempt of Congress.
Emmet Flood, the White House attorney dealing with the Russia investigation, attended part of the classified briefing and was spotted leaving the DOJ headquarters alongside House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and White House chief of staff John Kelly. None of the men took questions from a contingent of reporters standing watch.
The White House later said in a statement that Kelly and Flood made brief remarks at the beginning of the meeting to “relay the President’s desire for as much openness as possible” and departed before it actually began.
The unusual meeting had become highly politicized in recent days as President Donald Trump, a possible subject of the probe, ratcheted up attacks against the investigation, the Justice Department and the FBI. He has claimed that the FBI had “infiltrated” and “spied” on his 2016 presidential campaign when the agency reportedly used an informant to make contact with Trump campaign advisers who allegedly had suspicious contacts linked to Russia.
The president demanded the Justice Department investigate the accusations and turn over any relevant documents to Congress.
White House involvement in an investigation Justice Department investigation is rare. Trump has routinely broken norms about how the White House interacts with the Justice Department, which is supposed to have a degree of independence. While the presidency can certainly shape the direction of the Justice Department through nominations and help broadly outline priorities, the White House is not supposed to be involved in individual cases.
Typically, administrations are eager to steer clear of any actions which might give an appearance of politicization of the Justice Department.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said the meeting on the classified information had not changed his view that the FBI followed proper procedures during their investigation.
“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 or protocols,” Schiff told reporters after the meeting.
Justice Department officials initially invited only Nunes and committee member Gowdy to review the classified information regarding the FBI informant and the agency’s purported monitoring of Trump campaign officials. Democrats immediately criticized the move, accusing the GOP of politicizing intelligence by initially excluding Democrats from the classified briefing.
“Never has there been anything so disrespectful of the Congress than what they’re doing today,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. The California Democrat said she had directed Schiff to attend in her place so as to make sure “henchmen of the president” do not interfere with the investigation.
Justice Department officials also briefed other members of Congress ― the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” composed of congressional leaders and the top members of the intelligence committees from both parties― on Thursday afternoon. Kelly and Flood made similar remarks in that meeting as well before departing shortly after they began.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, later criticized their presence at the latter meeting.
“There’s never been a Gang of Eight meeting with that kind of White House presence,” he said.