Donald Trump

US Democrat, Republican leaders to get classified briefings on Russia probe

The White House had arranged a briefing about classified documents to be attended by House Republicans; after Democratic complaints, the US Justice Department said it would hold a second classified briefing the same day

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 12:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 1:01am

United States lawmakers from both parties are set to meet with top intelligence officials on Thursday for classified briefings as US President Donald Trump raises new suspicions about the federal investigation into his 2016 campaign.

Trump is calling his newest attempt at discrediting special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation “spygate”. 

In recent days, he has been zeroing in on – and at times embellishing – reports that a long-time US government informant approached members of his campaign during the 2016 presidential election in a possible bid to glean intelligence on Russian efforts to sway the election.

Trump intensified his attacks on Thursday, tweeting that it was “Starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history”.

Trump’s broadsides set the stage for the unusual decision by the White House to arrange a briefing about classified documents that will be attended by three Republican House members, including House speaker Paul Ryan.

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Ryan played down Trump’s attacks, saying he does not worry about any lasting damage to the agencies. “We have strong institutions in this country. They’re going to endure any kind of test,” Ryan told reporters Thursday.

After Democratic complaints and negotiations that went into the evening Wednesday, the Justice Department said it would hold a second classified briefing the same day and invite the “Gang of Eight” – a group that consists of the top Republicans and Democrats in each chamber and the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees.

There were two other late additions to the list: White House chief of staff John Kelly and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had originally said that no one from the White House would attend the briefing, at which the investigation into Trump’s campaign will be discussed.

Rosenstein appointed the special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation, and is frequently criticised by Trump.

Two House lawmakers – Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy – were invited to attend both briefings, as were Kelly, Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, according to the Justice Department.

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All were invited to the second briefing as well, plus Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. 

The first briefing will take place at the Justice Department, the department said. The second briefing will take place on Capitol Hill, according to three people familiar with the plans.

Details about the meetings continued to shift Thursday morning. 

A spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, said that he would attend the first meeting instead of the second one. Ryan is attending fundraisers later on Thursday in Houston.

And Schumer called for the first meeting to be cancelled.

“What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?” Schumer said in a statement.

Nunes, an ardent Trump supporter and member of his transition team, had originally requested the information on an FBI source in the Russia investigation. Trump took up the cause as the White House tried to combat the threat posed by Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and possible obstruction of justice.

The back and forth between Congress and the Justice Department over the Nunes request – one of many over the course of the Russia investigation – has simmered for weeks.

The department originally rejected Nunes’s appeal, writing in a letter in April that his request for information “regarding a specific individual” could have severe consequences, including potential loss of human life. 

Negotiations restarted when Trump demanded in a tweet on Sunday that the Justice Department investigate “whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes”.

The Justice Department agreed to expand an internal investigation to determine whether there was any politically motivated surveillance. And the White House said that Kelly would organise the meeting with House lawmakers to discuss the documents.

Trump escalated his efforts to discredit the investigation Wednesday, tweeting: “Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State. They go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before! What goes around, comes around!”

It remained unclear what, if any, spying was done. The White House gave no evidence to support Trump’s claim that the Obama administration was trying to spy on his 2016 campaign for political reasons. 

It has long been known that the FBI was looking into Russian meddling during the campaign and that part of that inquiry touched on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian figures. Mueller later took over the investigation when he was appointed special counsel in May 2017.

Trump has told confidants in recent days that the revelation of an informant was potential evidence that the upper echelon of federal law enforcement had conspired against him, according to the three people who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Trump told one ally this week that he wanted “to brand” the informant a “spy”, believing the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public.

As Republicans worked to show a Justice Department conspiracy against Trump, Democrats and former law enforcement officials defended the agency.