WASHINGTON ― Top Democrats on Wednesday urged the Justice Department to scrap a classified briefing with top House Republicans regarding sensitive documents that the GOP lawmakers had requested about the Russia investigation, but said if the meeting was to go forward on Thursday, it ought to include lawmakers of both parties.
Justice Department officials invited Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, and committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to review information about an FBI informant who reportedly attempted to make contact with Donald Trump's campaign advisers prior to the 2016 election. The FBI had received evidence that the advisers had suspicious contacts linked to Russia.
Last week President Trump accused the FBI of "spying" on his campaign for "political purposes" and demanded the Justice Department probe that investigation and alleged surveillance. On Wednesday, he dubbed the FBI probe "SPYGATE," tweeting that it "could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!" These allegations are only the latest attempts from the president and his allies to discredit what is now special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.
In a Wednesday letter, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted the planned meeting between Justice Department officials and GOP lawmakers as "completely improper" and warned that it "would set a damaging precedent for your institutions and the rule of law."
In the letter addressed to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, the Democratic leaders argued that the meeting could create an opportunity for Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill to "prematurely access investigatory information and selectively leak national security secrets" in order to distort the facts about the Russia investigation, which has already yielded nearly two dozen indictments.
"However," they wrote, "if you have determined in your best judgment that Justice Department participation in the meeting is the only way to prevent this situation from devolving into an outright constitutional crisis, then we believe you must insist on the only appropriate mechanism for highly sensitive briefings that might implicate intelligence sources and methods ― a bipartisan Gang of Eight briefing that involves congressional leadership from both chambers."
The "Gang of Eight" consists of Schumer; Pelosi; Nunes; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.); Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee; Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee; and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House intelligence committee.
Schiff on Wednesday called the Democrats' exclusion from the classified briefing "a serious abuse of power." Warner told a CNN reporter that he hoped the Justice Department "would not in any way be forced to reveal confidential information that would go against 75 years of practice."
Several Republicans are also requesting to be included in the Justice Department meeting, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic who is not seeking re-election this year, tweeted that excluding Democrats from the classified briefing "is not right."