Top Senate and House party leaders and Intelligence Committee leaders from both parties will be briefed on whether an informant was embedded in President Donald Trump’s campaign on Thursday, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The briefing comes after complaints from Senate Democrats and some Republicans about the adminstration’s plans for an unprecedented briefing for two prominent House Republicans from FBI Director Christopher Wray and and the Justice Department on Thursday. At noon, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy will meet with White House chief of staff John Kelly, deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Chris Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, according to guidance from the Department of Justice.
But two hours later on Capitol Hill, those same officials with meet with House and Senate Democratic Republican leaders as well as the chairmen and ranking members of the Intel Committees, a stunning shift after the initial exclusion of Democrats. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) hinted that the meeting would come on Thursday afternoon after he said he’d “leave it up to the process” regarding whether he and the top Intelligence Democrat in the Senate would be included.
The developments marked a major break from the partisan play from House Republicans, who have largely joined President Donald Trump’s war on the Justice Department. Their counterparts in the Senate, by comparison, are deliberately avoiding the crossfire.
It’s not that GOP senators aren’t interested in potential misconduct by law enforcement officials. But their default is to defend the FBI rank and file, not trash its leadership, as House members did at a news conference on Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, the politics over in the House have become the issue. And in the Senate, we’ve tried not to become the issue, we’ve tried to investigate the facts,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who recently gave a speech defending FBI agents in the face of attacks from the House.
Senate Republicans are not dismissive of the FBI informant matter and are still demanding documents from the Justice Department about it. Plus, a trio of Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee quietly asked to attend Thursday’s event, including Cornyn, who serves on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
But Burr and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have maintained a cooperative bipartisan rapport during the panel’s probe into Russia’s influence on the 2016 elections. And senators don’t want it to turn into into the months-long food fight that the House Intelligence Committee has become. After securing a Gang of Eight bipartisan meeting that would include Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for June, the Gang pushed to have it moved up to right after the House-only briefing on Thursday.
And in a sharp contrast to the House’s dueling partisan assessments of the Russia investigation, the Senate panel has released several reports together with sign-off from both parties. The White House’s plans for a bipartisan briefing before Memorial Day with the intelligence committee’s leaders marked a victory for the upper chamber’s approach as House Republicans tried to steamroll their Democratic colleagues with a partisan meeting.
“There’s a stylistic difference. We’re trying to be able to work through it in a bipartisan way as much as we can,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “It’s important for the country because this is going to be a very contentious investigation … whatever the decision is at the end, we’ve got to be able to say we were together on this.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan will not attend the bipartisan meeting Thursday due to a “longstanding schedule commitment,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman.
“Chairmen Gowdy and Nunes will continue to lead in this space for House Republican,” she said.
Whether Senate Republicans are succeeding in their efforts to depoliticize their own investigatory efforts is another question. Senate Republicans have tried to stay above the rhetoric from Trump and his allies, underscoring their support for special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential collusion with Russia by the president’s allies.
The scheduling of Thursday’s meeting between senior law enforcement officials and House Republicans was a major test for the Senate GOP’s ability to conduct oversight without blocking and tackling too much for Trump. Many Democrats clamored for the inclusion of the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate, as well as their respective intelligence committee leaders — the Gang of Eight that often participates in high-level national security briefings.
“What kind of congressional oversight only involves one party?” asked Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Limiting the number of lawmakers privy to such sensitive law enforcement information, he noted, typically involves the Gang of Eight as a matter of custom.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 GOP leader, said that having Senate Republicans at the meeting “would probably be a good thing” and suggested that top Democrats in the Gang of Eight should also be involved even before the White House agreed — yet another oblique criticism of the House’s unicameral, partisan approach.
Burr has studiously avoided even commenting on the informant issue, wary of how partisan the issue has become on the other side of the Capitol. He and most other members of his committee are worried about the lasting damage that could come from portraying the FBI as a political enemy and the precedent that will be set from outing a confidential informant in a partisan way. And It’s clear that if he had agreed to attend and leave Warner behind, it would have damaged their relationship.
Warner warned that he might “start to lose faith and trust in individuals that would attend such a meeting, since this is against any of the traditional procedures and protocols that the intelligence community has used for decades.”
Reminded that some Senate Republicans have sought to attend the meeting, Warner decried “antics driven by these House guys.”
The three GOP senators who requested to attend the Thursday meeting with DOJ and FBI, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Cornyn, had yet to receive a reply as of late Wednesday. Grassley had earlier received a pledge from Rosenstein to get “access to the same information” that the House intelligence panel has received in its ongoing probe of the FBI’s investigative activity ahead of the 2016 election.
“There has to be accountability and oversight by the Congress of how the Department of Justice and the FBI do their work,” Cornyn said on Wednesday. “The idea that they’re going to say what we can see and what we can’t see is offensive.”
A top House GOP ally of Trump’s, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, toldreporters that he doesn’t expect DOJ to disclose the informant-related documents that the president’s supporters have pushed for access to.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another Intelligence member, said he‘s not concerned with the Justice Department’s actions and believes the department was targeting people claiming to be “agents of a foreign government … they were targeting those individuals, not the campaign.”
“On this particular case, if something was done inappropriate, we should know about it,” Rubio said. “But that hasn’t been my sense up to now.”