Trump’s Lawyer and Chief of Staff Appear at Briefings on F.B.I.’s Russia Informant

Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, on Thursday.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s chief of staff and a White House lawyer representing the president in the Russia investigation were present on Thursday at the start of two classified meetings requested by members of Congress to review sensitive material about the F.B.I.’s use of an informant in the inquiry.

The two men left both meetings after sharing introductory remarks “to relay the president’s desire for as much openness as possible under the law” and before officials began to brief the lawmakers, the White House said in a statement.

But the presence of John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, and Emmet T. Flood, the president’s lawyer, infuriated Democrats, and legal experts said their visit, at the least, could give off the appearance that the White House abused its authority to gain insight into an investigation that implicates the president.

The president’s legal team was unapologetic. “We are certainly entitled to know” what information the government has on the F.B.I. informant, Rudolph W. Giuliani, another lawyer representing Mr. Trump in the investigation, said in an interview. The meeting “cuts off a long subpoena,” he said, referring to a legal fight for the information.

At least two lawmakers participating in the briefings told Mr. Flood to his face that his presence was inappropriate.

“Although he did not participate in the meetings which followed, as the White House’s attorney handling the special counsel’s investigation, his involvement — in any capacity — was entirely improper,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

House Republicans close to the president, led by Representative Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s chairman, had been pressing for weeks for access to material related to a law enforcement informant who had approached at least three Trump campaign advisers who had been in contact with suspected Russian agents. People familiar with the matter said that the purpose of using the informant — a common F.B.I. tool — was to glean information about what the aides knew about the Russian efforts to hack into Democratic emails, not to spy on Mr. Trump’s campaign.

But the issue exploded when Mr. Trump accused the F.B.I., without evidence, of planting a spy in his campaign. He demanded in recent days that the Justice Department investigate the matter and turn over records to Congress, despite warnings from law enforcement officials in his administration that sharing the documents would put the informant and foreign intelligence partners at risk.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials did not provide documents to the lawmakers on Thursday, but they did provide information about the use of the informant, according to two people familiar with the matter. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a classified meeting.

Republicans close to Mr. Nunes made clear in the run-up to the meetings that they would not be satisfied unless officials turned over documents. Neither Mr. Nunes nor lawmakers close to him spoke publicly after Thursday’s sessions.

Democrats who attended said after the meetings that the F.B.I. had done nothing wrong by employing the informant, an American academic who served in several Republican administrations and has taught more recently in Britain.

“Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the F.B.I. or any intelligence agency placed a ‘spy’ in the Trump campaign, or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols,” Mr. Schiff told reporters on behalf of the Democrats in the briefing. He did not take questions.

White House officials had at first arranged for only Mr. Nunes to be briefed. But Republican Senate leaders, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the Intelligence Committee chairman, pressed the White House to change the audience to the so-called Gang of Eight, the select bipartisan group with whom the government’s most sensitive intelligence is shared.

Mr. McConnell said in an interview on Thursday that the Gang of Eight meeting was an “appropriate way to convey whatever information the administration had to convey,” but he declined to critique Mr. Trump’s charges of illegal spying.

As Mr. Trump continued to fan unsubstantiated claims that partisan Democrats had planted a spy in his campaign, the logistics for the meetings shifted several times.

Ultimately, Mr. Schiff was allowed to attend a morning session that had previously been offered to just Mr. Nunes, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and another Republican congressman. The Gang of Eight met later Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Flood’s presence at the meetings was entirely unexpected. While Mr. Kelly helped arrange the meetings at Mr. Trump’s request, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, had said no White House staff members would attend. Guidance circulated by the Justice Department late Wednesday did not include Mr. Flood among the invitees.

“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,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter.

When Democrats confronted Mr. Flood in the Gang of Eight meeting, Mr. Kelly intervened and dismissed their criticism, according to one of the officials familiar with the meeting.

Democrats tried to start their own inquiry. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, made a formal request for the Justice Department to investigate the disclosure of the confidential informant’s name and existence to the news media.

While there is no constitutional provision that says the president’s personal lawyer cannot make a statement at a classified briefing, legal scholars expressed misgivings.

“Even if Flood wasn’t there for any operative parts of the meeting, the optics are disquieting,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “Rather than being sensitive to the clear potential conflict this creates, the president is driving a truck through the middle of it. Historically, a president would be very careful to avoid the appearance of a conflict, as opposed to relishing in it.”

Mr. Ryan, who has been criticized for not reining in House Republican attacks on the Russia inquiry and federal law enforcement, defended the unusual meetings.

Inherent in the Intelligence Committee’s work “is the responsibility to ask tough questions of the executive branch,” he said in a statement. “That is why we have insisted and will continue to insist on Congress’s constitutional right to information necessary for the conduct of oversight.”

Mr. Nunes, a loyal ally of Mr. Trump who advised his presidential transition, has been quiet about what exactly he hoped to learn about the informant, saying only that his late-April request was part of an oversight investigation into potential political bias and abuse of power within the Justice Department as it relates to the Russia investigation.

It was the latest in a series of bold demands for classified documents and testimony related to the Russia inquiry — and far from his first open confrontation with top Republican officials in the department. And it echoed another episode, from last spring, in which Mr. Trump falsely claimed that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, and Mr. Nunes went public with information that he said showed the Obama administration had “incidentally” collected intelligence on Trump associates.

Democrats say that the latest episode — including the president’s involvement — is the most recent gambit by Mr. Nunes and Mr. Trump to undermine the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and gain information about his inquiry.

Many of Mr. Nunes’s targets were in the room for the meeting: Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director; Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general; and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, along with other law enforcement and intelligence officials.

Mr. Trump continued to rail against law enforcement on Twitter on Thursday, repeating his unsubstantiated claims. “Large dollars were paid to the Spy, far beyond normal,” he said, without citing evidence, before referring to the matter as “one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history.”

Five former top American intelligence officials who have worked for Democratic and Republican administrations, including Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, warned on Wednesday that House Republicans were putting at risk the tradition of bipartisan oversight of intelligence.

“When congressional oversight is overly partisan — or focused on undermining important counterintelligence investigations — we worry about inappropriate political influence on the investigators and the erosion of a bipartisan approach to intelligence and national security,” they wrote in an open letter.

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