Top Republican says Dems should attend briefing

The second highest raking Senate Republican John Cornyn breaks with President Trump and says Democrats should be able to attend a highly classified briefing with House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy about documents related to a classified intelligence source and the Russia investigation.

Posted: May 24, 2018 12:37 PM
Updated: May 24, 2018 12:42 PM

The Trump administration is still moving forward with its plan to brief a pair of House Republicans on Thursday on a confidential intelligence source in the Russia investigation, but it is also planning a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" briefing on the matter next month.

The plans to brief the Gang of Eight, which consists of the top Republican and Democratic members of both the House and Senate intelligence committee and as well as congressional leaders from both parties, came after Democrats slammed the White House and Justice Department for agreeing to a briefing of highly classified material without inviting Democrats.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California and Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina are expected to meet with FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and senior Justice Department officials over Nunes' subpoena for documents related to a confidential FBI source.

Previous DOJ briefings for Nunes and Gowdy have also included a separate briefing for Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence committee. It's not yet clear as of Wednesday evening whether that will also occur Thursday.

"Tomorrow's meeting will proceed as previously scheduled," White House spokesman Raj Shah said Wednesday. "A separate meeting of the bipartisan Gang of Eight with DOJ, law enforcement and intelligence officials is being planned following the Memorial Day recess."

The meeting for Nunes and Gowdy has sparked condemnation from Democrats in both the House and Senate. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN he confronted Nunes on the floor and told him Democrats wanted to attend the briefing. Castro said Nunes' response was "I'm not going to play that game."

The White House had initially said that the Democrats had not formally requested to take part in the briefing, despite calls from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for the meeting to be bipartisan.

One person familiar with the situation said that Trump told aides Wednesday, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, that he wanted the meeting to appear above board and nonpartisan, and to make sure Democrats are able to view the intelligence so they can't accuse the White House of playing games.

He has told advisers he doesn't want the accusations of partisanship to overshadow the larger story, which he believes is a conspiracy by law enforcement against him.

He was annoyed the Democrats had been given the opening by not being invited, the person said.

The negotiations over the Thursday meeting continued furiously throughout the day Wednesday. Lawmakers were initially told that the Gang of Eight meeting would be held Thursday in place of the Nunes and Gowdy meeting, but then the decision shifted to have the Gang of Eight briefed after next week's congressional recess, according to a congressional source.

Trump has seized on reports about a confidential source speaking with his campaign advisers in 2016 to accuse the FBI of spying on his campaign, though US officials have told CNN the confidential source was not planted inside the campaign to provide information.

Kelly is expected to go to the Justice Department to lay the groundwork of what the goal is of the meeting and to make sure there is some sort of resolution so that the members are satisfied.

But Republican critics of the Justice Department and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remain deeply pessimistic that the Justice Department will divulge anything on Thursday.

Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and the head of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters he did not expect the Justice Department to provide Nunes and Gowdy with any of the relevant documents Thursday, saying his prediction is based on both "rhetoric and historical fact."

He reiterated that contempt of Congress should still be on the table if Rosenstein doesn't heed to their demands.

A congressional aide said conservative allies of the President -- including Meadows and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, both of whom appealed to Trump directly last week for help in Republicans' quest for documents -- remain concerned that they won't ultimately get their hands on documents they sought Trump's help to obtain, citing fears that the summit this week will not involve an actual review of the records. Instead, some members fear the meeting will feature just another round of negotiations over a future document production that may never materialize, the aide said.

Some of Trump's allies have privately feared that the President's call for an investigation into the FBI's conduct -- which Rosenstein granted Sunday when he referred the matter to the Justice Department inspector general -- could ultimately do more harm than good to their months-long efforts. Trump took to Twitter on Sunday to demand the Justice Department investigate the FBI's use of a confidential source -- a step some of his outside advisers had been encouraging him to take.

But some of the lawmakers who had entreated the President for support in their quest for documents were less enthused about Trump's attempt to help them -- in part because the assistance they had asked for was not what he delivered. Some members fear Trump's attempts to help may backfire.

GOP congressional sources said Trump's latest intervention might actually make the Justice Department less inclined to hand over the documents requested by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. If the FBI's use of a confidential source becomes the subject of an active investigation, the sources said, Justice Department officials might have even more reason to withhold records from lawmakers than they do already.

One person close to the White House said senior aides have resisted efforts from Trump allies inside and outside Congress to ratchet up the pressure on Justice Department leaders over the FBI's use of a confidential source.

"There's definitely tension," said the person, who has advised the President on how to approach the Mueller investigation.

"Outside friends of the President ... are far more adamant about confrontation than senior staff at the White House," the person said of the more aggressive approach Trump's group of advisers have advocated. "I think senior staff at the White House are still generally of the view that it's better not to escalate."

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