The White House and the Justice Department have put off a high-stakes confrontation over the FBI’s use of a confidential source to aid an investigation into the Trump campaign, after top law enforcement and intelligence officials met with President Trump on Monday to discuss the brewing controversy.
That could be viewed as something of a concession from the Justice Department, which had been reluctant to turn over materials on the source to GOP lawmakers demanding them. But it also could be a bureaucratic maneuver to buy time and shield actual documents.
Earlier this month, the department temporarily defused a similar standoff with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is seeking internal records and FBI reports on the source and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt. The department had Nunes over for a classified briefing but provided no documents, and Nunes decided not to attend a later briefing the department offered.
The Monday meeting, which included Trump, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, lasted about an hour. Trump personally called to confer with the officials, two people familiar with the request said, though White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the meeting was put on the books last week.
The gathering came a day after the Justice Department asked its inspector general to investigate Trump’s claim that his campaign may have been infiltrated by the FBI source for political purposes. The officials planned to discuss that, as well as the Justice Department’s response to congressional requests for documents on the origin of what is now special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
The source at issue is Stefan A. Halper, a veteran of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and an emeritus professor at Cambridge University in England, according to multiple people familiar with his role.
The Washington Post had previously confirmed Halper’s identity but did not report the information after warnings from U.S. intelligence officials that exposing him could endanger him or his contacts. Now that his name has been revealed by multiple news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine and Axios, The Post has decided to publish his name. The Daily Caller first reported on some of his contacts with members of the Trump campaign.
Sanders said in a statement after the Monday meeting: “Based on the meeting with the President, the Department of Justice has asked the Inspector General to expand its current investigation to include any irregularities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s or the Department of Justice’s tactics concerning the Trump Campaign.”
She added, “It was also agreed that White House Chief of Staff Kelly will immediately set up a meeting with the FBI, DOJ, and DNI together with Congressional Leaders to review highly classified and other information they have requested.”
The latter statement could be particularly significant. Justice Department leaders have fought vigorously against turning over to Congress materials on the FBI’s source. It was not clear whether they had backed down from their position and would now allow GOP leaders to look at or keep the documents, or whether there would simply be a follow-up meeting for more discussion.
It was also not clear which lawmakers would be invited to review the information. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally who has been critical of the Justice Department for not turning over documents to Congress, said he was glad to hear that Justice officials seemed willing to share more material about how they opened the investigation into contacts between some in the Trump campaign and Russians.
“It’s a good day for transparency, and I appreciate the president’s leadership,” Meadows said. “Obviously, the details of the cooperation that is a result of this meeting today will be a defining moment for the Department of Justice. We can certainly applaud the progress and efforts that were made today.”
Meadows said he was interested to see which lawmakers would be invited to attend.
“If it includes critical members of the House Intelligence Committee, it will go a long way to answering these unanswered questions,” he said.
The stakes of the meeting were high, and Trump raised them significantly Sunday when he said on Twitter that he would order the Justice Department to “look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
That Justice Department officials acquiesced to the demand is significant in its own right. The president effectively requested, and apparently received, a review of the investigation into his campaign.
“In my opinion, it is a terrible outcome for the department,” said former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller, who served in the Obama administration. “The president has basically requested an investigation of the investigators with no evidence of wrongdoing, and they’ve agreed to do it.”
Still, it was unclear how much further officials would be willing to go if the president remained unhappy.
Meadows said Monday before the meeting: “Rod Rosenstein knows exactly what happened and what is in the documents requested by Congress. Either the matter warranted investigation long ago and he did nothing, or he’s seen the facts and believes nothing is wrong. His belated referral to the IG is not news . . . it is a ruse.”
Justice Department officials cited the safety of the source and others, as well as damage to relations with partner intelligence services, as reasons not to reveal the materials to Congress. Trump has the power to order the department to comply with congressional demands, but it is possible that department officials might resign in protest or refuse the order and force Trump to fire them.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, said in an interview Sunday that Trump wanted the materials handed over to Congress, though he conceded that the Justice Department “may want to put some strictures on it, like it has to be confidential or they don’t give the name but they give the information.”
Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said: “Rudy Giuliani made it clear today that he wants these documents for the Trump legal defense team. That is not appropriate, and I have a concern about anyone from the White House being present for review of these sensitive documents, because the White House should have no role in access to these investigative materials.”
Schiff also raised concerns that the Justice Department and the FBI were “capitulating” and pointed to past warnings that officials expressed about the safety of the source. “Why have those concerns gone away? Because if they haven’t, they shouldn’t be providing this information.”
Trump has not named Halper or produced any evidence that he infiltrated his campaign for political purposes.
In the summer of 2016, Halper met with Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis for coffee in Northern Virginia, offering to provide foreign policy expertise to the Trump team. In September of that year, he reached out to George Papadopoulos, an unpaid foreign policy adviser for the campaign, inviting him to London to work on a research paper. He also had multiple contacts with foreign policy adviser Carter Page for talks about foreign policy.
Rosenstein said Sunday that “if anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action.”
Rosalind S. Helderman and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.