DOJ offers new briefing as lawmakers dispute Trump spy claim
WASHINGTON (AP) — Trying to combat President Donald Trump’s allegations of misconduct, the Justice Department is offering lawmakers a new look at classified documents next week on the FBI’s use of an informant in the Russia investigation.
The move comes as Republican congressional leaders are publicly disputing Trump’s claims that the government planted a spy in his 2016 campaign “to help Crooked Hillary win” — a reference to his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Three senior Republicans who have been briefed on the matter, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have now said they have not seen evidence that the FBI acted inappropriately. Still, Ryan said Wednesday that there is “more digging to do.”
“We have some more documents to review. We still have some unanswered questions,” Ryan said.
Trump has been lashing out at the FBI amid reports that a longtime U.S. government informant approached members of his 2016 campaign to glean intelligence on Russian efforts to sway the election. Branding the effort “spygate” on Twitter, Trump said it was “starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history.”
Late Wednesday evening, a senior Justice Department official said the department and the FBI would offer another briefing to lawmakers — the third briefing after two last month — to the so-called “Gang of 8,” which includes congressional leaders from both parties and the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees. The official said they would provide new materials and also “the documents that were available for review but not inspected by the members at the previous briefing.”
In offering a third briefing, the Justice Department is trying to blunt criticism from the House conservatives who have repeatedly pressed for documents and questioned the department’s conduct in the Russia investigation.
The Justice Department official said the new briefing would happen Monday or Tuesday, depending on members’ schedules, and that DOJ is prepared to “brief members on certain questions specifically raised by Ryan and other members.” The official declined to be named because the briefings are classified.
Ryan said Thursday that next week is not soon enough.
“Frankly the sooner the Department of Justice complies with all of our document requests, which are legitimate document requests, the better this is going to be for everybody, and had they complied with the document requests earlier when we made them, we probably could have spared the country of all of this drama,” he said.
Ryan also noted that he has seen no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, which special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. That echoed a House intelligence committee report released earlier this year.
On Wednesday, Ryan said he agreed with House Oversight and Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., that there is no evidence of a planted spy. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., also said he has seen no evidence of that.
Tension between Congress and the Justice Department over the informant matter has been bubbling for weeks. Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., originally requested documents on the informant in April. Trump soon seized on the issue and has made unproven claims of FBI misconduct and political bias.
The department originally denied Congress access to any of the documents, citing national security concerns. But they eventually relented after pressure from Trump, Nunes and Ryan.
The Justice Department and FBI believe they “can provide information that is directly responsive to congressional inquiries in a manner that is consistent with its national security and law enforcement responsibilities, and is pleased to do so,” the department official said in a statement.
Trump’s lawyers in the Mueller probe have also taken advantage of the back and forth, with Rudy Giuliani telling The Associated Press on Thursday that Trump won’t do an interview in Mueller’s investigation unless they see the documents themselves. He had previously said the lawyers wanted a briefing.
“That will not change,” Giuliani said of his insistence on seeing the documents. “We are not going to budge.”
He added: “We want to see the documents — this matters far more to my client than to any member of Congress.”
Democratic congressional leaders have said that giving Trump or his lawyers access to the materials would set a dangerous precedent for an ongoing investigation and have asked the Justice Department to let them know if they do give that access.
Though senators are invited to the briefing, there has been less interest in that chamber in prolonging the public fight over information concerning the informant. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the briefing that he learned “nothing particularly surprising.” On Wednesday, Burr appeared ready to move on, saying the briefing he attended “sufficiently covered everything to do with this right now.”
On Thursday, after the Justice Department offered the new briefing, Burr said “I have a hard time figuring out what else they could produce.”
He said the department had brought documents to the previous briefing, but “I didn’t need to look at them because I knew what they were.”