White House Brokers, But Will Not Attend, Meeting About Secret Russia Probe Documents

May 22, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 11:09 pm

Updated at 4:16 p.m. ET

Key congressional leaders are set to meet Thursday with federal law enforcement and intelligence bosses amid a slow-motion standoff over secret documents in the Russia investigation, the White House said on Tuesday.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders said that the White House had brokered a meeting at which two key Republican chairmen would hear from the leaders of the Justice Department, FBI and the intelligence community following weeks' worth of requests for the classified material.

No one from the White House is scheduled to be present, Sanders said — nor, at this point, are any senators or any Democrats, in defiance of a request from the Senate minority leader.

The members of Congress set to attend are Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Those scheduled to attend from the executive branch are Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Ed O'Callaghan, Sanders said.

The meeting has been scheduled amid a gathering storm for the Justice Department and FBI following months of attacks by the president and his allies.

Trump has attacked one flank by demanding an expanded investigation into the ongoing inquiry about Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether anyone in his campaign was involved.

Trump and his supporters in Congress are expected to attack again in short order along a different line of advance, when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz releases his report about the FBI's 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton.

That document is expected to appear soon, potentially next week.

The preliminary findings in the report already have cost one top FBI leader his job: former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The release of the full document is likely to invite new calls for potential criminal charges against McCabe and possibly former FBI Director James Comey.

It isn't clear how much the IG report could touch on the Russia investigation, which was still in its earlier stages at the time when much of the action on the Clinton case was taking place in 2016.

But Trump and Republicans want to hit DOJ and the FBI with both prongs of their assault at once to make the case that the agencies are infected with political bias and their work cannot be trusted.

"A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "If so, that would be a disgrace to this country. I hope there weren't, frankly ... but some man got paid based on what I read in the newspapers."

The White House and its supporters have been sandblasting the Justice Department and the FBI for months; the leaders of both law enforcement agencies have steadily been giving ground. Thursday's meeting is the latest example, although it wasn't clear precisely what documents Nunes and Gowdy are expecting and whether they will receive them then.

The informant

According to reports, the FBI paid a confidential informant to meet with Trump campaign workers who had or were suspected of having contacts with foreign governments in 2016. That followed a tip via Australia's Foreign Ministry that an American working for Trump in London had been meeting with Russian agents.

Trump cited the news stories to expand upon a theme he has sounded a few times before: that the Obama administration inappropriately spied on his campaign.

Previous charges about eavesdropping and "unmasking" were deflated, and skeptics say Trump is trying to change a story about potential wrongdoing by his campaign into one that casts doubt upon his predecessor, the Justice Department and the FBI.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NPR on Tuesday there is a critical distinction between an investigation like the one the FBI reportedly conducted in 2016 and "spying" or "surveillance" and some other terms used lately.

"The point is: What is the objective? If the objective was, in fact, to surveil, observe the campaign to determine its political strategy or what it was trying to do to compete with the other campaign, that would not be good," Clapper said. "But the point here was to understand what the Russians were doing to try to infiltrate and gain leverage, access, influence, whatever they were trying to do. And there's a huge difference there."

The president's allies say they want to know for sure and have been demanding information about the Russia investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the effort led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

"It's really important that we conduct the proper oversight of the executive branch to make sure that power is not or has not or will not be abused," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters on Tuesday.

The House intelligence committee, Nunes, and other lawmakers threatened Rosenstein with contempt of Congress or, potentially, impeachment.

For a while, Rosenstein took a tough line, vowing that DOJ wouldn't be "extorted," but the battlefield shifted after the reports about the confidential informant.

Then Trump weighed in more strongly than ever with a "demand" for more information from the Justice Department, and Rosenstein acceded to it Monday. He traveled to the White House for a meeting with Trump, White House chief of staff John Kelly and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

The meeting

One outcome was an acknowledgment by the Justice Department that its IG, Horowitz, will expand an inquiry he was already conducting into the ongoing Russia investigation to include its use of sources and surveillance.

For Trump's supporters in the House, that is not good enough. They want the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel to look into the work of the first, Mueller. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought in additional investigators to look into the Russia case but so far has stopped short of agreeing that another special counsel is necessary.

The second outcome was the meeting on Thursday that Kelly has brokered between Hill leaders, the Justice Department and the FBI. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had urged the Trump administration to include Democrats but none were included in the White House's announcement.

"The only thing more outrageous than this meeting occurring at all is the fact that it's now partisan," Schumer said. "It is crystal clear that Chairman Nunes' intent is to interfere with the investigation, and Speaker Ryan is allowing it to happen."

"A dangerous precedent"

Democrats say the pressure Trump is bringing to bear on federal law enforcement is an inappropriate overreach of his authority against a Justice Department that is supposed to be able to act independently.

"The fact that ... Trump is DEMANDING the DOJ reveal confidential information about an ongoing criminal investigation is more evidence of potential abuses of power by the President," wrote New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, on Twitter. "This is not only a threat to the rule of law, but a dangerous precedent for our democracy."

Another Democrat, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said the legal and political complexities in Washington, D.C., missed the point: U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be able to protect their clandestine sources and operatives, he said.

"The review of highly classified documents in the midst of a highly charged partisan conflict raises the clear and present danger of illegal disclosure potentially catastrophic to confidential sources and operations," Blumenthal warned.

NPR correspondents Carrie Johnson and Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The ongoing investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election, and whether the Trump team colluded with the Russians, has often put the president at odds with intelligence agencies. In just the last few days alone, he's accused the FBI of planting an informant within his 2016 campaign and asked the Justice Department to investigate. James Clapper was the director of national intelligence under President Obama, and he was there when the intelligence community first began looking into Russia, Trump and the election. He's got a new book out detailing that time. It's called "Facts And Fears: Hard Truths From A Life In Intelligence." When I spoke with him earlier today, I started by asking him whether there was evidence that the FBI surveilled the Trump campaign for political purposes.

JAMES CLAPPER: No. And I think the president is deliberately trying to change the narrative here. What this was about and the focus was on the Russians and their potential attempts to infiltrate his political campaign. That is, Mr. Trump's. And I think the FBI would do the same for any other campaign where the Russians were attempting to infiltrate and gain leverage and gain influence, which was what they were about.

CORNISH: Is there a difference, though, between kind of surveillance and an investigation?

CLAPPER: It's somewhat semantics. I think the point is what is the objective? If the objective was, in fact, to surveil or observe the campaign to determine its political strategy or what it was doing to try to compete with the other campaign, that would not be good. But the point here was to understand what the Russians were doing to try to infiltrate and gain leverage, access, influence, whatever they were trying to do. And that - there's a huge difference there.

CORNISH: Thinking about what's gone on in the last 48 hours, you now have a president who's essentially asked, you know, the FBI, the Justice Department, to investigate this issue - right? - an investigation into their own investigation while it's still going on. What's happening here?

CLAPPER: For me, it's not good. This is yet another assault on one of our institutions. And when the president kind of violates a norm in this country that's been practiced and followed for decades, reaches out and starts directing the Department of Justice and, in turn, the FBI what to do, that is not a good thing for this country.

CORNISH: Are you surprised to be here? You write in the book about actually having briefed this president - right? - on the idea of Russian meddling in the election. So you've had this conversation with him in one way or another.

CLAPPER: Yes, starting with, of course, the January 6 of 2017 when I, along with my colleagues, went to brief President Trump on the results of our intelligence community assessment on Russian meddling in the election. And it was pretty clear, although it was a reasonably cordial, professional exchange, that President-elect Trump then just could not get his head around or accept anything that would cause doubt about the legitimacy of his election. And that reaction has sustained itself to this day.

CORNISH: I want to take a step back a moment and talk a little bit about this period of time which you do write about in the book. You talk about being among the first in the intelligence community to say publicly that Russians were interfering in the 2016 presidential election. You said that during an event at a think tank. And do you wish you had said more louder?

CLAPPER: Yeah. I've had occasion think a lot about that. And frankly, as I recount in the book, a good bit of controversy about the extent to which we talked about this publicly, would we be serving the Russian cause by magnifying what they were doing? That was one concern. And the other concern, at which I think is quite understandable given the highly charged partisan environment of the campaign, that President Obama was reluctant to give the optic of putting his hand on the scale in favor of one candidate to the disfavor of the other. So those were kind of mitigating factors.

When we finally did, after a lot of debate and agonizing, decide that we should say something before the election, Jeh Johnson, then the secretary of Homeland Security, and I jointly issued a statement on the 7 of October 2016, which recounted fairly candidly and pointedly what the Russians were doing. Unfortunately, that came out the same day as the "Access Hollywood" tape, so our public pronouncement sort of got lost.

CORNISH: Here's the thing. Whenever the intelligence community or the government wants us to know that something is happening and is concerned and has intelligence that they want out there, they manage to get it to us. I mean, I think about the run-up to war in Iraq - right? - and talking about weapons of mass destruction.

CLAPPER: Yeah.

CORNISH: Everyone knew about that by the time, you know, that tour of information was done. Did you guys actually think this was a moment of crisis?

CLAPPER: I've seen a lot of bad stuff in 50-plus years in intelligence but never something that disturbed me as much as when I fully understood the magnitude of what the Russians were trying to do. And we did tell the policymakers what was going on. Whether or not it was up to the intelligence community on its own to take action to be - go public, I'm not sure about that.

CORNISH: I also ask because then it seems somewhat mystifying to understand the response from the executive and legislative branch - right? - of President Obama saying he doesn't want to look like he's putting a finger on the scale for Clinton, you have House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to sign onto a bipartisan announcement about Russian meddling based on the briefing that you've given them. Did politics just trump the intelligence here?

CLAPPER: Well, I guess I'd have to say yes it did. I think the mere fact the intelligence community was investigating what the Russians were doing or trying to understand what the Russians were doing, that was considered itself political. And on more than one occasion, representatives of the intelligence community were warned by or enjoined by members of Congress not to be used as tools of the administration to advance this narrative that the Russians were interfering and that they favored one candidate over the other - so a very tough position for the intelligence community to be in.

CORNISH: Right now, we learn more and more about the Russia investigation in part because congressional intelligence committees, for example, are releasing documents here and there and batting that about in the press. How much more about this do you know that you can't talk about? Are the American people still missing giant chunks of this story?

CLAPPER: Well, I think the giant chunk of the story - and I don't know the answer to this - is, well, was there collusion by some part of the Trump campaign with the Russians? And we certainly didn't turn up any smoking-gun evidence of that before we left. But I will say this, and I recount this in the book, about the striking parallelism between what the Trump campaign was doing and saying and what the Russians were doing and saying and particularly on the subject of Hillary Clinton and her health is one specific example. But I do not have smoking-gun, empirical evidence of direct collusion. And of course, that's obviously a big question that hopefully special counsel Mueller will resolve one way or the other because I think in the end the American public deserves an answer to that issue, that question.

CORNISH: Well, James Clapper, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CLAPPER: Thanks very much for having me.

CORNISH: James Clapper - his new book is called "Facts And Fears." Tomorrow, part two of our conversation - where the intelligence community goes from here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: