President Trump and the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday reached an agreement to allow the inspector general to investigate conservative claims of FBI wrongdoing in the Russia probe, defusing at least for now a burgeoning crisis between the White House and senior law enforcement officials.
After summoning top DOJ, FBI and intelligence officials to the White House, Trump agreed the DOJ’s inspector general should “expand its current investigation to include any irregularities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s or the Department of Justice’s tactics concerning the Trump Campaign,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
The Justice Department already referred the matter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz on Sunday after Trump demanded that the department probe the FBI’s use of a confidential source in its investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in 2016.
But the White House also said chief of staff John Kelly plans to “immediately set up a meeting” between top law enforcement officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to “review” the “highly classified” materials that sparked the standoff.
It is unclear what, exactly, the members of Congress will be allowed to examine.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a vocal Trump supporter, has subpoenaed the Justice Department for information related to the source. The law enforcement agency granted Nunes a meeting earlier this month — but has so far rebuffed his demand for documents.
The announcement came after Trump met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to discuss his ultimatum, which raised alarm bells in Washington.
Trump took to Twitter on Sunday to claim his campaign may have been “infiltrated or surveilled … for Political Purposes” and said the DOJ should look into whether “any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
The extraordinary demand from Trump set up a potential crisis with the Justice Department. Although the DOJ is part of the executive branch, most presidents have refrained from requesting specific investigations in order to avoid the appearance of wielding improper political influence.
But Trump has increasingly broken those constraints, as he and his allies in Congress have mounted a furious verbal fusillade against the Russia probe.
Trump’s response suggests Rosenstein was able to thread the needle by assuaging the president’s concerns while stopping short of carrying out a full-fledged investigation at his request.
At the same time, it would be a significant victory for Nunes if he is able to view documents related to the early days of the Russia probe, which he has requested for months.
The Justice Department had refused to provide Nunes with the information he sought about the source on the basis that doing so would endanger this person’s life. Wray made an impassioned defense of the need to protect confidential sources to lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Rosenstein has also publicly pushed back against Nunes’s efforts to obtain information on the start of the Trump campaign probe, saying that the Justice Department would not be “extorted.”
But Trump had backed the Intelligence Committee chief, whom he praised as “courageous” on Monday during a swearing-in ceremony for the new CIA director, and threatened to personally intervene in the dispute.
Several House Republicans — backed by the president — have publicly suggested that the FBI used the secret intelligence source to entrap members of the Trump campaign. The bureau, Nunes has alleged, never had enough information to open a counterintelligence investigation into the campaign in the first place.
There is no public evidence of wrongdoing by either the intelligence source or the bureau, which regularly uses confidential informants in validly predicated counterintelligence investigations.
Critics say Nunes and other conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seeking the documents in order to muddy the waters around special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“The demand for additional information about the scope and other details regarding the special counsel’s ongoing investigation is … misplaced,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Department regulations protect this type of information from disclosure to Congress for legitimate investigative and privacy reasons.”
But his supporters see a complex and wide-ranging internal effort to thwart the Trump campaign within the Obama-era Justice Department, citing the FBI’s use of a controversial piece of opposition research in its investigation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already appointed a federal prosecutor to work with the inspector general to look into conservative allegations of surveillance abuse during the 2016 election. John Huber, Utah’s top prosecutor, is working in tandem with Horowitz from outside of Washington.