President Donald Trump’s unproven claims about an FBI informant will loom over a pair of high-risk meetings Thursday between the Justice Department and congressional leaders that could heighten tensions over the government’s Russia probe.
The meetings were arranged to address reports about the FBI’s use of an informant to gather information from Trump aides during its 2016 probe of Russian contacts with Trump’s campaign.
Trump and his allies have blown up these reports, accusing the FBI of planting a spy to undermine Trump’s White House bid, and insisting that DOJ hand over the classified documents detailing the scope of the informant’s work. Aghast Democrats and national security officials have insisted that relying on an informant is routine procedure in such a sensitive counterintelligence operation.
Still, Trump reissued his accusations Thursday morning ahead of the meetings, falsely asserting that former Obama administration intelligence chief James Clapper had confirmed his version of events.
"Clapper has now admitted that there was Spying in my campaign," Trump tweeted. "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!"
The first gathering, at noon, will feature only Republicans, who will receive briefings from FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, as well as various FBI and DOJ staffers. They’ll brief House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, who subpoenaed documents about the informant last month, House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The second meeting, at 2 p.m., will expand to include Democrats, as the briefers will address the entire congressional “Gang of Eight,” which includes the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the Republican and Democratic leaders of each branch's intelligence committee.
A surprise attendee of both meetings will be White House chief of staff John Kelly. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted earlier this week that no White House officials would be present for the meeting. But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he’s been told Kelly will only be there briefly.
"I was assured that Kelly would only be there to convene the meeting and then leave the room," Schiff said Thursday morning on MSNBC. "There should be no one present from the White House. In fact, we shouldn't even have the White House convening the meeting. It just shows really how improperly motivated the whole meeting is.”
Indeed, GOP attempts to learn about the informant have raised Democratic fears that Trump is leveraging his power as president to expose details of the Mueller probe that could be relevant to him or associates under investigation. Trump has been aided by allies in Congress, who have demanded that the FBI produce all documentations about the informant’s work and threatened to hold senior Justice Department officials in contempt of Congress when they refused.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump's top lawyer in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign, has said Trump's defense team should be briefed on the informant's role.
The push has raised Democratic fears that Trump is attempting to leverage his power as president to reveal details of the Mueller probe that could be relevant to him or associates under investigation. Trump has been aided by allies in Congress, who have demanded that the FBI produce all documentations about the informant’s work and threatened to hold senior Justice Department officials in contempt of Congress when they refused.
Amid the escalating tensions, the White House organized a Monday sit down with Trump, Wray and Rosenstein. They agreed to hold briefings on Thursday for congressional leaders.
The partisan briefing — a break from the tradition of sharing intelligence information with the Gang of Eight — has drawn sharp rebukes from Democrats, who urged DOJ to call off the meeting.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer took particular aim at Nunes, a partisan lightning rod who has been leading and his aggressive probe into the FBI's conduct.
“[T]he separate meeting with a known partisan whose only intent is to undermine the Mueller investigation makes no sense and should be called off,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a Thursday morning statement. “What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?”
Amid the Democratic furor, DOJ scheduled the second briefing for the Gang of Eight. Ryan, though, will be out of town for the later meeting. He's scheduled to appear at GOP fundraisers in Houston.
The second meeting has not quelled Democratic outrage, though. Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.) lashed out Thursday morning, questioning the need to hold the purely partisan first meeting.
“If they insist upon carrying out this farce, the White House and its Republican allies in the House will do permanent, longstanding damage to the practice of bipartisan congressional oversight of intelligence,” he said in a statement.
Though Democrats have warned that the meeting could breach longstanding limits on congressional access to aspects of ongoing investigation, Republicans have predicted the briefings are actually unlikely to produce the material they're demanding, a result that could reignite hostilities between Trump supporters in the House and the Justice Department.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who speaks frequently to Trump, said he's confident Nunes and Gowdy won't receive documents pertaining to the FBI informant. As a result, Meadows said said, impeachment of top DOJ figures like Rosenstein should remain on the table. He and other Trump allies have also demanded the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate allegations of misconduct by the FBI.