House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) backed away from an open confrontation with the Justice Department on Thursday after a private meeting with senior intelligence officials who said they could not give him top-secret information about an intelligence source who had aided special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to people familiar with the matter.
Since the weekend, Nunes has said he may seek a contempt vote against Attorney General Jeff Sessions if the Justice Department does not produce documents in response to a subpoena. That subpoena asked for all files related to a specific individual.
The request set off alarm bells at the CIA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) because the individual in question is a longtime U.S. intelligence source, and officials feared providing such information could risk the person’s safety and anger foreign partners who share intelligence with the United States.
White House officials have urged the two sides to meet and try to resolve their differences, and Nunes traveled to the Justice Department Thursday with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) for a meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein as well as DNI and FBI officials.
Nunes and Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, did not speak to reporters after the hour-long meeting but issued a joint statement later in the day.
“We had a productive discussion today with officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, and FBI in which we raised questions related to information requested from the Intelligence Community,” the lawmakers said in their statement. “The officials committed to holding further discussions of these matters, and we look forward to continuing our dialogue next week to satisfy the Committee’s request.”
The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), received a separate briefing on the subject later in the day, according to people familiar with the matter. A spokesman for Schiff declined to comment.
Also Thursday, Nunes received public support in his battle from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who called Nunes’s request “wholly appropriate.”
Ryan said he thought the Justice Department should have answered Nunes’s questions on the matter much earlier.
“I expect that we will be able to have an accommodation to honor this request because first of all it’s our job to do oversight of the executive branch,” he said. “This request is perfectly appropriate within the scope of the committee’s investigation, and I hope and believe and expect that they’ll be complied with.”
Nunes and Republicans on his committee have repeatedly charged that the Justice Department and FBI have misused the top-secret surveillance court process to unfairly investigate supporters of President Trump, and they have charged that senior Justice Department officials — all Trump appointees — are stonewalling efforts to expose misuse of surveillance power.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close ally of Trump, has threatened to seek the impeachment of Rosenstein if he does not turn over a secret document identifying who is under investigation in the Mueller probe and what possible crimes are being investigated.
Democrats have accused Nunes and others of creating a political smokescreen to protect the president and hobble the Russia probe.
Nunes has insisted he is seeking documents only to show that FBI and Justice Department officials misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in applications for surveillance authority. Nunes has repeatedly challenged the accuracy of applications the department made to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who had contacts with Russians that the FBI deemed suspicious.
Starting in October 2016, the FBI sought and received authority from the FISA court to surveil Page — surveillance that extended into 2017.
On Monday, Nunes told reporters that his latest request did not seek information about a specific person. “I’ve never referenced an individual. They did. They did that. I didn’t,” he said, referring to the Justice Department.
Senior intelligence officials alarmed by Nunes’s subpoena warned White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly last week that the information being sought could not be turned over because it could do serious damage to intelligence-sharing relationships with other countries, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Kelly and President Trump sided with Justice, but Nunes and some of his colleagues say they ultimately may win the fight over access to the source’s files.
On Tuesday, senior Justice officials renewed their efforts to fend off Nunes’s request. During a White House meeting, Rosenstein discussed the issue with senior officials, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
So far, the White House has sided with the Justice Department in the dispute, but Nunes and other lawmakers are still trying to convince the president to back their push, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.