The Justice Department held two unprecedented, highly controversial briefings for two groups of lawmakers concerning an ongoing criminal and counter-intelligence investigation. If you knew nothing else, that would be odd enough. Until the Hillary Clinton case apparently changed all the rules, the FBI and Justice Department wouldn’t even comment on the existence of ongoing investigations.
Administration officials held two separate briefings on Thursday: one for Mr. [Devin] Nunes at the Justice Department, which has ended, and another on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon for the Gang of Eight. . . .
The details continued to be fluid Thursday. At the last minute, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was also included in the first meeting. He was there in place of Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, who received a last-minute invitation.
Even weirder, “John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, whom Mr. Trump asked to help organize the meetings, attended both sessions, as did Emmet T. Flood, a lawyer representing Mr. Trump in the Russia investigation. Their presence was highly unusual in a sensitive congressional oversight briefing, and it raised the specter that top aides to the president could gain access to closely held information about an investigation of the president and his associates.”
Former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance told me it is “stunning if true that the president’s personal lawyer was in, even for a bit.” Thankfully, both of them departed “after initial remarks,” according to the Times. Nevertheless, with the number of White House allies present at these sessions, it’s inevitable that President Trump and his lawyers will find out what was said.
Whatever was said apparently pleased House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “I appreciate the Department arranging today’s briefing,” he said in a written statement. “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.” In public statements, Ryan has acted as if this is just the ordinary process of oversight, even though it is certainly not.
According to constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, the sessions “exemplify the slow but steady collapse of the most basic norms of investigatory, prosecutorial and judicial independence and display Trump doing in plain sight what Richard Nixon worked so hard to hide from public view.” He explained, “What disturbs me most is that not even sacrificing our counterintelligence shield against foreign adversaries with no factual basis is beyond this president — and that not even such transparent treachery is likely to be recognized by the public for the betrayal it clearly is once Trump enlists his Fox allies to label responsible investigation as ‘Spygate.’ ”
The questions about these sessions vastly outnumber what is known. We do not know what was said in either meeting or why two meetings were needed. We do not know why Flood and Kelly were allowed to be present for any part of a meeting concerning an investigation into the president and his closest associates. We do not know whether the name of the secret source was confirmed. We do not know whether lawmakers were disabused of the Trump-spread rumor that information came from an implanted “spy.” We do not know whether they were informed what the factual basis was for sending the source to make contact with the campaign.
What we do know is that Trump has used the power of his presidency to change FBI investigative procedures because he is personally affected. From the outside, we see what appears to be a grievous injury to the notion that the Justice Department is above politics. It makes Justice another executive department obligated to comply with whatever its boss wants.
Former White House ethics counsel Norman Eisen told me the meetings were “ill-founded, since there is no evident foundation for Trump’s wild allegations. The idea that they would be GOP only was even more odious, so making them bipartisan was an improvement, though still lipstick on a pig.” He continued, “Our intelligence sources should be sacrosanct. The signal all this sends is that our sources are not safe, which will scare them off and in turn make all of us less safe.” All of this was done, Eisen said, “so Trump and his congressional enablers can push a phony counternarrative. What a terrible betrayal of national security, the rule of law and simple decency.”
In some sense the appearance of the meetings matters more than what was actually conveyed. We have strayed into new, uncertain territory that treats the rule of law and democratic norms as optional. Both political parties will come to regret these events.
UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) released a statement after the Gang Eight briefing with the Justice Department: “Today’s Gang of Eight briefing was conducted to ensure protection of sources and methods. 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.” We have heard nothing from Republican as to whether they’ve found their “spy.”