House Intelligence enjoys breakthrough with Justice Department
An unexpected breakthrough in negotiations between the Justice Department and the House Intelligence Committee is about to offer some lawmakers an intimate look at highly sensitive intelligence files collected by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The development represents a rare example of a deal amid what Democrats otherwise describe as a sea of stonewalling by the president and his officials of their investigations.
While the Justice Department has not yet met all of the panel’s demands, Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.) and other committee Democrats say they are encouraged.
“Optimistically, there’s been a thawing,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the committee, told The Hill.
The situation stands in contrast to the House Judiciary Committee, which voted along party lines to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt on May 8 after he failed to meet Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-N.Y.) demands for access to Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence.
Schiff this week delayed a vote to enforce a subpoena to compel Barr to turn over materials after the Justice Department agreed to quickly begin producing intelligence documents on the condition the committee dropped a threat of “enforcement action.”
Various lawmakers, including Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.), who sit on both the Judiciary and Intelligence panels, said they were unsure why Intelligence has made more progress in negotiations than Judiciary.
“I don’t have insight on that,” Swalwell said Thursday. “I was pleased with the way that Chairman Schiff was able to negotiate for the materials that we need.”
Some lawmakers pointed to the fact that the Intelligence panel is most interested in foreign intelligence and counterintelligence files, while Judiciary is fighting primarily for Mueller’s unredacted report.
“Our mission is primarily a counterintelligence one,” Swalwell added. “That might be one of the reasons.”
The panels also have distinct oversight authorities and therefore have different statutory and legal arguments underpinning their demands.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) noted that Schiff initially issued a rare, bipartisan request for information from the Justice Department with the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), which he said may have added weight to the committee’s demands. While Nunes did not issue the subpoena with Schiff, he also did not publicly object to it.
“I think, statutorily, we are required to be provided these documents and it’s something that is requested by Devin Nunes, too,” Krishnamoorthi said Wednesday. “Those two facts are, I think, why the department is cooperating and, for that matter, I think Chairman Schiff gets a lot of credit for being very even-keeled and level-headed in terms of what kind of information we are trying to get.”
Schiff, who has launched an expanded investigation into Russian interference and the possibility that President Trump or members of his inner circle are subject to foreign compromise, is particularly interested in the foreign intelligence and counterintelligence material generated in the investigation, which is briefly referenced in the first volume of Mueller’s 448-page report.
The report states that FBI personnel were embedded in the special counsel’s office to review the results and report back to the bureau. These results are not fully disclosed in the report.
“The entire FBI probe began as a counter-intelligence investigation. We have yet to determine what that investigation found in terms of counter-intelligence findings, or even whether it is ongoing,” Schiff told reporters Wednesday.
“But those are issues that potentially could compromise our national security, so our first priority is to get to the bottom of what the counter-intelligence has to show, whether there are any steps that our committee or that Congress has to take to protect the country,” Schiff said.
Mueller did not find evidence to charge members of the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia to interfere in the election, but Democrats say they need to investigate whether links between the president and Moscow present any unknown national security risks. Trump has accused Schiff and other Democrats of attempting a “do-over” of Mueller’s investigation after its results left them unsatisfied.
Schiff’s negotiations with the Justice Department have had their share of drama.
Earlier this month, Schiff subpoenaed Barr for the foreign intelligence and counterintelligence files generated in the course of the special counsel’s investigation in addition to Mueller’s unredacted report and underlying evidence. At the time, he claimed the Justice Department had failed to adequately respond to the panel’s bipartisan requests.
Last week, Schiff said the department had failed to produce any documents by the subpoena’s May 15 deadline, announcing he would hold a vote on an “enforcement action” to compel the department to comply.
In a letter Tuesday on the eve of the vote, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd warned Schiff that the department would likely cut off negotiations if the panel took the “precipitous and unnecessary” action of holding Barr in contempt. Boyd also accused Schiff of mischaracterizing “many aspects” of the department’s initial offer in prior correspondence.
At the same time, Boyd acknowledged the committee’s legitimate interests in the intelligence material and said the Justice Department would “expedite” access to the files if the committee confirmed it would not pursue a vote on enforcement.
Schiff then announced he was postponing the meeting on enforcing the subpoena, citing the department’s cooperation. According to Schiff, the committee expects to receive the first batch of intelligence materials by the end of next week.
It’s unclear how many documents the committee will receive, but the Justice Department has described the materials possibly covered by the scope of the request as “voluminous” and “highly sensitive.”
At this stage, the committee has only reached a partial agreement with the Justice Department on the materials sought by the subpoena.
The Justice Department has also offered to allow all committee members and some staff to view a minimally redacted version of Volume I of Mueller’s report – which discusses Russian interference and contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow – provided they keep its contents a secret.
While this represents an expansion of Barr’s initial offer, Democrats remain unsatisfied, demanding that more lawmakers have access to an unredacted version of the report.
“The agreement covers the production of twelve categories of counterintelligence and foreign intelligence documents. The agreement is silent on other matters, including review of the unredacted report,” a committee source told The Hill.
The detente between the Intelligence panel and the Justice Department comes amid a broader spat between House Democrats and Trump, who on Wednesday threatened to stop working with Democrats on legislation unless they halt their investigations into his administration.
Democratic leaders are eyeing a contempt vote for Barr by the full House for not complying with Nadler’s subpoena sometime after the Memorial Day recess, though a date for the vote has not been set. It is unclear whether such a vote could compromise the Justice Department’s negotiations with the Intelligence Committee.
Schiff said Wednesday that the committee would still uphold its subpoena and enforce it if the administration does not produce all of the requested documents. He also noted that the documents are not a “substitute” for the testimony of key witnesses like Don McGahn, whom Trump instructed against appearing before the Judiciary Committee this week by citing a Justice Department opinion that the former White House counsel is immune from compelled congressional testimony.
“We should have the full 12 sets of documents by the end of next week. This does not obviate the need for the subpoena,” Schiff said. “We’re going to keep that in force until we get all the documents that we’re seeking. But that production is going to start now.”
Author: Morgan Chalfant
Contributors: Mike Lillis and Olivia Beavers