DOJ Meeting On Spy Allegations

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Justice Dept. Holds Classified Briefings On Trump Spy Infiltration Allegations

May 24, 2018 - 5:29 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/AP) -- The Justice Department held two briefings Thursday about the FBI informant who was interacting with the Trump campaign.

It was a highly unusual series of meetings prompted by partisan allegations that the bureau spied on the Trump campaign.

The extraordinary closed-door sessions were sought by President Donald Trump's allies and arranged by the White House, as the president has ramped up efforts to sow suspicions about the legitimacy of the FBI investigation that spawned a special counsel probe. Republican lawmakers have suggested the secret information would confirm unproved allegations that the bureau acted improperly when it launched the investigation into ties between Russia and Trump's campaign.

“This is about what the president has gotten to calling one of the biggest political scandals in history – ever; bigger than Watergate. He’s calling it ‘spygate,’ and it’s about published reports that indicate that in the fall of 2016, the FBI tasked a confidential source, reported to be a British-based professor, with reaching out to at least three members of the president’s campaign,” said CBS News White House Correspondent Steven Portnoy.

The briefings were the latest piece of stagecraft meant to publicize and bolster such claims. But they also highlighted the degree to which the president and his allies have used the levers of the federal government — in this case, intelligence agencies — to aide in Trump's personal and political defense.

Initially, the White House had arranged the classified briefing for just two Republican House members who had pressed information on the outside informant – Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina).

But after complaints by Democrats, the Justice Department said it would host a second classified briefing the same day for bipartisan congressional leaders.

Under direct pressure from the president, Justice Department officials agreed to grant Republicans' request for the briefing, and only later opened a second briefing to a bipartisan group. The invite list evolved up until hours before the meeting — a reflection of the partisan distrust and the political wrangling. A White House lawyer, Emmet Flood, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly showed up for both briefings, although the White House had earlier said it would keep a distance.

The White House officials didn't attend the full briefings, the White House said Thursday in a statement, but instead delivered brief remarks communicating the "president's desire for as much openness as possible under the law" and relaying "the president's understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government."

It was unclear how much information was revealed to lawmakers. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who attended the first briefing, said he wouldn't discuss what was said. The House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Adam Schiff, also would not comment.

Trump has zeroed in on, and at times embellished, reports that a longtime U.S. government informant approached members of his campaign in a possible bid to glean intelligence on Russian efforts to sway the election. The president intensified his attacks this week, tweeting Thursday that it was "Starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history."

Republicans already eager to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation used Trump's complaints of "spygate" to press for answers from the Justice Department, whose leaders have tried for months to balance demands from congressional overseers against their obligation to protect an ongoing investigation into ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

The Justice Department on Sunday asked its inspector general to expand its ongoing investigation to look into whether there was any politically motivated surveillance of the campaign and later agreed to reveal classified information to key lawmakers.

That meeting on Capitol Hill had been expected to include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr was also invited, as was the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, Sen. Mark Warner, and Schiff, who at the last minute joined the first meeting.

Also attending both meetings were Kelly, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats.

Ryan defended the plan to have two meetings, saying they were the "same briefing." He said he had advised the administration to include Democrats but downplayed Trump's attacks, saying he doesn't worry that the criticism will do lasting damage.

"We have strong institutions in this country," Ryan said. "They're going to endure any kind of test."

The back and forth between Congress and the Justice Department has simmered for weeks.

Nunes, an ardent Trump supporter, had originally requested the information on an FBI source in the Russia investigation. The department rejected the request, writing in a letter in April that his request for information "regarding a specific individual" could have severe consequences, including potential loss of human life.

Negotiations restarted when Trump demanded Sunday that the Justice Department investigate "whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes."

It remained unclear what, if any, spying was done. The White House gave no evidence to support Trump's claim that the Obama administration was trying to spy on his 2016 campaign for political reasons.

It's long been known that the FBI was looking into Russian meddling during the campaign and that part of that inquiry touched on the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian figures. Mueller took over the investigation when he was appointed special counsel in May 2017.

Trump has told confidants in recent days that the revelation of an informant was potential evidence that the upper echelon of federal law enforcement had conspired against him, according to three people who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. Trump told one ally this week that he wanted "to brand" the informant a "spy," believing the more nefarious term would resonate in the media and with the public.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)