WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers, including a senior Democrat, went to the Justice Department for first of two planned classified briefings on Thursday from FBI and intelligence officials on an FBI probe into Russian election meddling after President Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims about a “spy” being used against his campaign.
The lawmakers were due to review classified information relating to Trump’s unsubstantiated suggestion that the FBI “implanted” a spy for “political purposes” into his 2016 presidential campaign to help his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan was spotted entering the Justice Department, along with two Republican committee chairmen for the meeting. Although the first meeting of the day was initially only expected to include Republican lawmakers, Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was also seen by a Reuters photographer arriving for the Justice Department meeting.
A second briefing is scheduled for Republican and Democratic leaders from the Senate and House of Representatives, known as the Gang of Eight later in the afternoon, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman, after Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress pushed on Wednesday for Democrats to be included.
Ryan said he told the Trump administration he believed Democrats should receive the same briefing as Republicans.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are attending both meetings, along with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, according to the Justice Department.
The New York Times reported that the FBI’s use of an informant was intended to collect information about what Trump campaign aides knew about Russian efforts to hack Democratic emails ahead of the 2016 election in order to harm Clinton’s presidential bid, not to spy on the Trump campaign.
The FBI was investigating whether anyone in Trump’s campaign had worked with Russia to help tip the election in Trump’s favor. Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed by the Justice Department to take over that probe in May 2017 after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
As Mueller has pressed ahead with his investigation, Trump has lashed out repeatedly at the FBI, Justice Department and special counsel and has sought to discredit the Russia probe, calling it a “witch hunt.”
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer welcomed the decision to brief the Gang of Eight promptly but questioned why there should be a separate briefing for the two Republicans, U.S. Representatives Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy, chairmen of the intelligence and oversight committees.
“What is the point of the separate briefing if not to cause partisan trouble?” Schumer asked in a statement.
Ryan said it was important to conduct good oversight of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement and he does not believe Trump’s criticism has done lasting damage to those agencies.
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the White House plan to provide a separate briefing for its Republican allies will damage traditional bipartisan cooperation on intelligence matters.
“They will also be sending a terrible message to anyone who works in or with our nation’s intelligence community that the White House will always prioritize partisan politics over protecting the people who help keep this country safe,” Warner said in a statement.
Trump has referred to the matter as “Spygate,” aiming to portray it as a scandal. “I hope it’s not true. But it looks like it is,” Trump said on Wednesday.
Trump’s closest conservative allies in Congress, led by Nunes, have been clamoring for access to the classified documents. The lawmakers have accused the FBI and Justice Department of political bias against Trump in favor of his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the leaking of the name of the confidential FBI informant who reached out to some of Trump’s campaign associates was “reckless, stupid and dangerous.”
“I will ask the Justice Department to investigate the source of this disclosure, which never should have happened, and hold the perpetrator accountable,” Nadler said at a news conference.
A congressional source familiar with the matter told Reuters that leaders of the intelligence committees received a previous briefing about the FBI’s decision to ask a Britain-based American academic to make contact with Trump’s campaign.
Those contacts produced little information to confirm allegations of possible collusion with Russia, the source said.
Mueller already has brought criminal charges against former Trump campaign aides including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as well as Russian individuals and entities accused of carrying out a propaganda and hacking effort to help Trump win the election. Mueller also is looking into whether Trump unlawfully sought to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Will Dunham