Congressional leaders meet with DOJ, intel officials on informant controversy
In a surprise the president's lawyer also attended for parts of the meetings.
Top congressional leaders met with senior intelligence and law enforcement officials Thursday in a series of White House-brokered meetings to review highly-classified information about the Russia investigation, including possible details about a reported FBI informant in touch with several Trump campaign advisers during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a surprise development that overshadowed President Trump saying the briefing could provide proof of his claim of FBI "spying," the new White House lawyer handling the Russia investigation, Emmet Flood, attended and participated in at least part of the briefings as did White House chief of staff John Kelly, sources confirmed to ABC News..
The move alarmed Democrats after they had raised concerns that White House involvement could further politicize what is supposed to be an independent probe.
"For the record, the President’s Chief of Staff and his attorney in an ongoing criminal investigation into the President’s campaign have no business showing up to a classified intelligence briefing, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted afterward.
Responding to questions about why Flood and Kelly were there, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement saying "Neither Chief Kelly nor Mr. Flood actually attended the meetings but did make brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the President’s desire for as much openness as possible under the law."
"They also conveyed the President’s understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government. After making their brief comments they departed before the meetings officially started," her statement continued.
President Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani tells ABC News it was his client who wanted Flood at the DOJ briefing.
"The President personally wanted Emmet there today," Giuliani told ABC News.
Giuliani says he and the full Trump legal team have not yet had a readout of what information was learned but they look forward to a briefing. shortly.
A congressional source said after Flood and Kelly delivered remarks at the top of the meeting, "it was expressed to them how inappropriate their presence was."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that Flood didn't take part in the briefings, but said his presence was "completely inappropriate," and that he "made this clear" to Flood.
The series of meetings began at noon, when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, met at the Justice Department with FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Ed O'Callaghan, a Justice Department official and deputy to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Nunes and Gowdy left about an hour later without speaking to reporters.
Schiff joined Gowdy and Nunes in the initial briefing at noon, at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s request after Democrats were initially excluded by the White House.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., attended the noon briefing as well because he was scheduled to travel to Texas for a fundraiser for House Republicans, according to an aide. Other congressional leaders in the Gang of 8 were briefed Thursday afternoon. The Gang of 8 refers to the top Republicans and Democrats in both chambers. plus the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who are regularly briefed on the most sensitive intelligence matters.
Ryan later put out a statement referring to the House Intelligence Committee Nunes chairs, saying "Inherent in the committee’s work is the responsibility to ask tough questions of the executive branch. That is why we have insisted and will continue to insist on Congress’s constitutional right to information necessary for the conduct of oversight."
Kelly had helped arrange what was originally planned as just a DOJ briefing for Nunes and Godwy as Republicans continue to spar with the Justice Department on requests for documents and information related to a myriad of GOP investigations into the department.
The meeting comes as President Trump continues to stoke unsubstantiated claims that the FBI planted a spy inside his presidential campaign. He has said the briefings could provide proof of his unsubstantiated claim the FBI was likely spying on his campaign.
“A lot of bad things have happened. We now call it ‘Spygate,’” Trump said as he departed the White House Wednesday. Countering Trump, Schiff has said the controversy should be called "Lie-gate."
After the second briefing concluded, Schiff read a statement on behalf of himself, Pelosi, Warner and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer - Democratic members of the so-called "Gang of 8" – congressional leaders who get high-level intelligence briefings.
"Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign, or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols,” Schiff said.
Later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News that there was "nothing really surprising" in the classified briefing.
Following protests from top Democrats and Republicans, the White House arranged the second briefing.
The meetings are the result of a subpoena Nunes issued earlier this month demanding classified documents related to the source, a request the Justice Department denied over national security concerns.
After Nunes threatened to move to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of Congress over the refusal, the Justice Department invited Nunes and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to DOJ for a briefing on the documents.
On Sunday, Trump entered the fray, calling for the DOJ to investigate whether the FBI “infiltrated or surveilled” his presidential campaign and whether it was ordered by Obama administration officials – allegations he has not backed up with evidence.
The Justice Department subsequently directed the DOJ inspector general, the agency's watchdog, to expand its ongoing investigation of surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page during the presidential election to include the president's concerns.
Nunes has said the request relates to classified information relevant to his ongoing investigation into allegations of political bias at the Justice Department related to the Russia investigation. It remained unclear Thursday if Nunes received the information he sought. He declined to comment Thursday following his first briefing.
Some Republicans have suggested moving forward with a proposal to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress if DOJ did not provide the information Nunes and Gowdy were seeking.
Democrats continue to express concern about the initial disclosure of the reported informant. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has asked the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the source of the disclosure that first appeared in media reports.
"Somebody has outed an intelligence asset for what seem to be purely political purposes," he wrote, after raising "concerns" earlier in the day that it was a member of Congress who leaked information about the informant to the media.
ABC News' Cecelia Vega, Trish Turner, Devin Dwyer, John Santucci and Mariam Khan contributed to this report.