WASHINGTON (AP) – House and Senate lawmakers from both parties are set to meet with top intelligence officials Thursday as 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 longtime U.S. 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 tweeted Wednesday that the FBI had been caught in a “major SPY scandal.”
Trump’s continued broadsides set the stage for the unusual decision by the White House earlier this week to arrange a briefing Thursday about classified documents for just two Republican House members, both Trump allies, as Trump and his supporters in Congress pressed for information on the outside informant.
After Democratic complaints and negotiations that went into the late evening Wednesday, the Justice Department said it would host a second classified briefing the same day and invite the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” – a group that includes 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 will replace another Justice Department official who was originally scheduled to attend. Rosenstein was originally left off the list as Trump on Tuesday declined to say whether he had confidence in him. Rosenstein appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation, and is frequently criticized by Trump.
The 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.
All were invited to the second briefing, as well, plus Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, according to DOJ. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr was also invited, along with the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, Sen. Mark Warner, and the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, Rep. Adam Schiff.
Details about the meetings continued to shift Thursday morning. A spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, said he would attend the first meeting instead of the second one. And Schumer called for the first meeting to be canceled.
“What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?” Schumer said in a statement.
Nunes, an ardent Trump supporter, had originally requested the information on an FBI source in the Russia investigation. And 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.
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’s 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 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 three people familiar with his recent conversations but not authorized to discuss them publicly. 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. Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump last year, tweeted Wednesday that the agency’s use of secret informants was “tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country.”
“Attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country,” Comey tweeted. “How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?”
In an interview airing Thursday on “Fox & Friends,” Trump referred to Comey as one of the “rotten apples” in FBI leadership and said he would have no problem explaining his actions to his own grandchildren.
“How is he going to explain to his grandchildren all of the lies, the deceit, all of the problems he’s caused for this country?” Trump asked.
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’ 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 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 Kelly would organize the meeting with House lawmakers to discuss the documents.
The New York Times was the first to report that the FBI had an informant who met several times with Trump campaign officials who had suspicious contacts linked to Russia. No evidence has emerged to show that Obama-era authorities placed an informant inside the Trump campaign.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.