WASHINGTON -- Justice Department and intelligence officials briefed top Republican and Democratic lawmakers Thursday on a confidential FBI source who aided in the investigation of whether President Donald Trump's campaign coordinated with Russia, attempting to defuse a partisan conflict over use of the source and the FBI's reluctance to reveal information about the matter.
Reversing its earlier position, the White House allowed top Democrats to join Republicans for two meetings Thursday. Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House lawyer Emmet Flood, who was recently made a point person for the special counsel's investigation, also were present for parts of the discussions.
It was not immediately clear if the Justice Department had provided information that would allay conservatives' concerns, particularly those of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who has pushed vigorously for information about the FBI's source.
In a statement after the first meeting, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the intelligence committee had "the responsibility to ask tough questions of the executive branch" and said the Justice Department was cooperating, though he offered no substantive details. He did not attend the second meeting, citing a scheduling conflict.
He added: "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."
Democratic lawmakers declined to comment on the substance of the briefing, but gave a joint statement afterward saying their view had not changed 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."
The statement was issued by Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and the top Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence panels, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Rep. Adam Schiff of California.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News that he had learned "nothing particularly surprising" at the briefing but declined to go into detail.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who also attended the briefing, did not comment about it afterward.
The first briefing, which lasted about an hour at the Justice Department, went to Nunes, Ryan, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Schiff, the Intelligence Committee's top Democrat.
The second, which lasted slightly longer on Capitol Hill, went to the so-called Gang of Eight, which includes the top Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate as well as the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Trump and his conservative allies have made the confidential source the focal point of their latest line of attack against the Russia probe, alleging that the FBI planted a spy in the Trump campaign for political purposes.
The source, Stefan Halper, a former University of Cambridge professor and veteran of past GOP administrations, had contact with three advisers to the campaign when Trump was running for president.
Trump tweeted Thursday morning: "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!"
That allegation overstates Halper's role based on what is known about him so far.
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, the office has paid Halper more than $1 million for research and development in the social sciences and humanities. He hired other academics and experts to conduct research and prepare reports, U.S. government officials have said.
Initially, no Democrats were to be involved at all in the planned discussion about Halper, and then, when two meetings were scheduled, no Democrats were to attend the first. But after more than a day of furious negotiations, both decisions were changed.
Kelly and Flood's presence was notable, as it contradicted White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' assertion Tuesday that no one from the White House would attend. She did not return a request for comment Thursday. Sanders also had said previously that only Gowdy and Nunes would be briefed and that Democrats had been cut out because they had not asked for the information their Republican counterparts 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 at the time.
Democrats criticized the White House for sending Kelly and Flood to the briefings after initially saying White House officials would keep their distance.
"For the record, the president's chief of staff and his attorney in an ongoing criminal investigation into the president's campaign have no business showing up to a classified intelligence briefing," Warner tweeted after the briefing.
The White House said the officials didn't attend the full briefings but instead delivered brief remarks communicating the "president's desire for as much openness as possible under the law" and relaying "the president's understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government," according to a statement.
DEMOCRATS LET IN
Democrats had asserted that it was inappropriate that Nunes and Gowdy be granted their own briefing, though that was largely before Schiff was allowed to attend the earlier briefing. In the past, Nunes has refused to sit for briefings with Schiff.
Schumer said in a statement Thursday morning: "While it's a good thing that the Gang of Eight will be briefed, the separate meeting with a known partisan whose only intent is to undermine the Mueller investigation makes no sense and should be called off. What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?" Schumer was apparently referring to Nunes as a "known partisan" and to Robert Mueller, the special counsel now leading the Russia investigation.
Warner, who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the separate briefing "demonstrates that their interest is not in informing Congress, but in undermining an ongoing criminal investigation."
"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.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, as well as other FBI and Justice Department briefers and staff members, provided information at the meetings, the Justice Department said.
At Trump's request, the Justice Department on Sunday asked its inspector general to explore the allegation of political spying. The department, though, has so far been unwilling to turn over documents to Congress about Halper, citing concerns about his safety and worries about damaging the United States' relationship with intelligence partners.
Trump could order the department to turn over documents, though some fear that could provoke an undesirable confrontation -- with Justice Department leaders quitting in protest or refusing the order and forcing Trump to fire them. But in the past 24 hours, fears about the substance of the meeting have taken a back seat to political bickering about the guest list.
Democrats objected after Sanders announced Tuesday that they would not be invited, and a trio of influential Republicans -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas -- also tried to push for access to the materials.
The Justice Department let the White House take the lead on arranging logistics, and initially, it seemed the Gang of Eight would be left out or briefed at a later date. Justice officials, though, knew they could not rightfully limit the materials to only Republicans, and at the very least, Schiff would have to be briefed shortly after Nunes, a person familiar with the discussions said.
Late Wednesday, those involved agreed on a briefing for Nunes and Gowdy, and then a briefing for the Gang of Eight immediately after.
TWEETS ON COMEY
Trump, meanwhile, took fresh aim Thursday at former FBI Director James Comey, writing on Twitter that the man he fired last year was "a terrible and corrupt leader who inflicted great pain" on his agency.
Trump's broadside came a day after Comey spoke as Trump has continued to insist that the FBI had spied on his campaign.
In a tweet Wednesday, Comey said "attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country."
"How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?" he asked in his tweet.
Asked about Comey's comments during a television interview taped later Wednesday, Trump returned fire at Comey.
"Well I'd actually say, how is he going to explain to his grandchildren all of the lies, the deceit, all of the problems he has caused for this country," Trump said in the interview that aired Thursday morning on Fox & Friends on Fox News.
"I think of the things that I've done for the country, the firing of James Comey is going to go down as a very good thing," Trump said. "The FBI is great. I know so many people in the FBI. The FBI is a fantastic institution, but some of the people at the top were rotten apples. James Comey was one of them."
In another tweet Thursday, Trump continued to insist that James Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, had acknowledged there was spying on Trump's campaign.
That assessment was based on comments Clapper made earlier this week on ABC's The View, according to Trump aides.
Asked if the FBI had spied on Trump's campaign, Clapper said: "No, they were not. They were spying on -- a term I don't particularly like -- but on what the Russians were doing. Trying to understand were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence, which is what they do."
In a separate interview on CNN, Clapper said Trump was distorting what he has said.
"The objective here was actually to protect the campaign by determining whether the Russians were infiltrating it and attempting to exert influence," Clapper said.
Information for this article was contributed by Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett, Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and John Wagner of The Washington Post; and by Mary Clare Jalonick, Eric Tucker, Laurie Kellman, Jonathan Lemire, Lisa Mascaro, Chad Day and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking Thursday after the fi rst classifi ed briefi ng on the Russia investigation, said lawmakers had a “responsibility” to ask tough questions, but he gave no substantive details of the meeting.
A Section on 05/25/2018
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