Just two Republican lawmakers will be allowed to review classified information about a confidential FBI source who aided the investigation into the Trump campaign at a meeting Thursday with Justice Department and intelligence officials, the White House said Tuesday.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced at a White House press briefing that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) would be the only two lawmakers at the meeting, which would also include FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Ed O’Callaghan.
Sanders said no White House officials would attend, even though Chief of Staff John F. Kelly brokered the gathering. She said Democrats were cut out because they had not requested the same materials that their Republican colleagues had.
“To my knowledge, the Democrats have not requested that information, so I would refer you back to them on why they would consider themselves randomly invited to see something they’ve never asked to,” Sanders said.
The move stoked some consternation in Congress. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said previously that he expected to be invited and said Democrats being shut out was “another serious abuse of power.”
“I have to think that what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said was incomplete. That’s my guess. We’re trying to get clarification from the department,” Schiff said. “There’s no way they can selectively brief Republicans only.”
Schiff said that Nunes “refuses” to take briefings from administration officials alongside panel Democrats, but in the past, Democrats have been offered identical briefings. He dismissed Sanders’s argument that Democrats had not asked for the briefing, saying Democrats had a “standing request” with the department that “any briefing the Department of Justice or FBI gives on the Russia investigation be given to us as well.”
Nunes’s office did not respond to a request for comment, though other Republicans said they saw no reason their Democratic colleagues could not attend.
“Certainly I would think you would have ranking members as well, if they wanted to view those documents,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said before the announcement.
A Justice Department spokeswoman referred inquiries to the White House.
The meeting will mark the next milestone in President Trump and conservative lawmakers’ long-running feud with the Justice Department over the FBI’s use of a confidential source in what is now special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia. The source, GOP veteran and former University of Cambridge professor Stefan A. Halper, had contact with at least three advisers to Trump during the campaign. Trump and his allies have sought to cast that as inappropriate political spying.
Late Tuesday night, Trump tweeted, “If the person placed very early into my campaign wasn’t a SPY put there by the previous Administration for political purposes, how come such a seemingly massive amount of money was paid for services rendered - many times higher than normal.... Follow the money! The spy was there early in the campaign and yet never reported Collusion with Russia, because there was no Collusion. He was only there to spy for political reasons and to help Crooked Hillary win - just like they did to Bernie Sanders, who got duped!”
It’s unclear to what money Trump was referring to, but Halper since 2012 has had contracts with the Defense Department, working for a Pentagon think tank called the Office of Net Assessment. According to federal records, ONA has paid Halper more than $1 million for research and development in the social sciences and humanities.
Halper hired other academics and experts to conduct research and prepare reports, U.S. government officials told The Washington Post.
At Trump’s direction, Justice this week asked its inspector general to review the use of Halper, though that did little to satisfy some members of Congress who want access to documents about him and his dealings with the FBI. Justice Department officials have been reluctant to turn over the materials, though on Monday, after meeting with Trump at the White House, they reached an agreement to have another gathering where lawmakers could review information.
The matter’s sensitivity is such that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) had turned down previous offers for a briefing about the source, Warner’s spokeswoman confirmed, over concerns that the classified information might leak from Capitol Hill.
The dispute comes as Trump and conservative lawmakers continue to rail against the FBI, the Justice Department and Mueller’s probe. Conservative House Republicans unveiled a resolution Tuesday insisting on the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate their growing list of grievances.
“There is a ton of evidence of real misconduct,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), and the resolution’s author.
Some conservatives are skeptical that Nunes or Gowdy will leave Thursday’s meeting with real information. The Justice Department has in the past offered classified briefings to Nunes, though they have refused to turn over documents.
“We’ve been here before,” Meadows said. “Another meeting without evidence and without actually seeing the documents is worthless.”
Meadows and others have said the Justice Department has been unconscionably slow to furnish records related to the FBI’s scrutiny of Trump’s campaign, even under subpoena. They are now contemplating contempt and impeachment proceedings for Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) went one step further at a Tuesday news conference, calling on the president to orchestrate Mueller’s termination.
“Nobody needs firing more than Robert Mueller,” Gohmert said, addressing Trump in absentia. “But you can’t be the one to fire him, because we’ve got some weak-kneed Republicans out there who will come after you for firing the guy who needed firing.”
Not all Republicans are on board with conservative House members’ calls for a second special counsel — or with the allegations that Trump’s campaign was the target of a spying operation.
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, predicted that Nunes and Gowdy’s meeting with senior Justice Department officials will help put to rest some of the circulating concerns and return lawmakers’ focus to the matter of election security.
“I think we’re going to come out of this meeting feeling a little bit better about where we are,” said Rooney, who has not supported calls for a second special counsel in the past. “The questions that are out there will hopefully be satisfied, and we can move on to that basic underlying question of what do we need to do to protect the sanctity of our ballots.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has also not promised the conservative Republicans pushing for a vote on their resolution that he will give it time on the floor. A spokeswoman for Ryan did not immediately respond to a request seeking clarity on Ryan’s plans.
Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly identified Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) as a member of the Freedom Caucus.
John Wagner contributed to this report.