WH: Kelly, Attorney Flood Didn't Stay For Secret Portions of Russia Briefings
Updated at 5:46 p.m. ET
The White House acknowledged that chief of staff John Kelly and a top lawyer for President Trump in the Russia matter had been present for two secret briefings about the investigation on Thursday but hadn't stayed for the substance.
Kelly and newcomer attorney Emmet Flood went to the Justice Department for a meeting with two important House Republican chairmen and then went to the Capitol for the meeting with the leaders of the House, the Senate and the chambers' two intelligence committees.
"Neither Chief Kelly nor Mr. Flood actually attended the meetings but did make brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the president's desire for as much openness as possible under the law," the White House said in an official statement.
It continued: "They also conveyed the president's understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government. After making their brief comments they departed before the meetings officially started."
A White House official had told NPR earlier in the day the administration didn't understand why it might be a problem for Kelly to be present at the meetings, at which top law enforcement and intelligence officials were to present secret information about the Department of Justice Russia probe.
"I don't see what the issue is," the official told NPR.
Kelly and the White House have been brokering the conversations since Trump said on Twitter last weekend that he wanted to learn more about the FBI's use of confidential informants to interview campaign aides in 2016.
Flood's presence was unexpected.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders had said earlier that no one from the White House would attend the resulting conferences, but those arrangements have changed after the back-and-forth up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Critics charge that Trump has violated the long-standing independence of the Justice Department to pursue investigations without political interference and called it inappropriate for administration officials to join briefings about an investigation that bears so heavily on the president and his aides.
Congress already has a process by which members can keep themselves informed about the work of the Justice Department and the FBI, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member on the Senate intelligence committee.
So there was no need, he said, for the briefing at the Justice Department for House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., separate from one at the Capitol for the leaders of the House and Senate and the leaders of the intelligence committees.
"The White House's plan to provide a separate briefing for their political allies demonstrates that their interest is not in informing Congress but in undermining an ongoing criminal investigation," Warner said.
"If they insist upon carrying out this farce, the White House and its Republican allies in the House will do permanent, long-standing damage to the practice of bipartisan congressional oversight of intelligence," Warner also said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Nunes and the other members of the intelligence committees are simply doing their work as appropriate.
"I appreciate the [Justice] Department arranging today's briefing," Ryan said. "As always, I cannot and will not comment on a classified session. 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."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told NPR separately on Thursday that he wouldn't discuss the classified briefing but that he retains confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller and in Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
At least one source and one method have already been compromised: Press reports revealed that Cambridge professor Stefan Halper met with three Trump campaign aides in 2016 as a confidential informant for the FBI. Investigators wanted to know about the overtures that people on Trump's campaign were receiving from Russian agents.
Trump denounced the FBI's use of a secret informant and said that had been tantamount to government-sponsored political snooping for Democrats.
"A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "If so, that would be a disgrace to this country. I hope there weren't, frankly ... but some man got paid based on what I read in the newspapers."
The Democrats who took part in the meetings on Thursday — House and Senate Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Adam Schiff and Warner — released a collective statement rejecting Trump's claim.
"Nothing we heard today has changed our view 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."
Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by the president last year, responded via Twitter, denouncing attacks on the agency and defending its use of confidential informants as "tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country."
He said the president's attacks on the FBI "will do lasting damage to our country."
Facts matter. The FBI’s use of Confidential Human Sources (the actual term) is tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country. Attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country. How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?— James Comey (@Comey) May 23, 2018
Nunes and Gowdy had been requesting secret information from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for months about the Russia investigation, and he had resisted. Nunes threatened to try to impeach Rosenstein or hold him in contempt of Congress. The deputy attorney general relented after Trump's demand that the Justice Department comply.
NPR correspondents Susan Davis, Sarah McCammon, Scott Neuman and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
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