WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama met in January 2017 with then-FBI Director James Comey and other top national security officials to discuss sharing information related to Russia with the incoming Trump administration, where Obama stated that the Trump-Russia investigation should be handled “by the book,” according to an email made public Monday and a source familiar with the matter.
The previously undisclosed meeting was memorialized in an email written by then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day. A person familiar with the January 5, 2017, meeting said the Obama administration wanted to know whether the FBI and others in the intelligence community believed there was a national security reason to limit conversations with the Trump transition about Russia because some on the incoming President’s team could be compromised.
The email was disclosed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who sent a letter Monday to Rice asking why she had sent the email to herself on the day of Trump’s inauguration about an Oval Office meeting on Russian election interference. The meeting included Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Comey and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
“President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book,’ ” Rice wrote. “The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book.”
In a statement, Grassley and Graham said, “Despite your claim that President Obama repeatedly told Mr. Comey to proceed ‘by the book,’ substantial questions have arisen about whether officials at the FBI, as well as at the Justice Department and the State Department, actually did proceed ‘by the book.’ ”
Grassley and Graham appear to be referencing the opposition research dossier on Trump and Russia compiled by ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. The two Republicans sent the Justice Department a criminal referral of Steele last month suggesting he may have lied to federal authorities.
“There is nothing ‘unusual’ about the National Security Advisor memorializing an important discussion for the record,” Kathryn Ruemmler, a counsel for Rice, said in a statement. “The Obama White House was justifiably concerned about how comprehensive they should be in their briefings regarding Russia to members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. General Michael Flynn, given the concerning communications between him and Russian officials.”
Ruemmler added: “The discussion that Ambassador Rice documented did not involve the so-called Steele dossier. Any insinuation that Ambassador Rice’s actions in this matter were inappropriate is yet another attempt to distract and deflect from the importance of the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in America’s democracy.”
Several of the 12 questions the senators asked Rice involved Steele, but the Steele dossier was not the topic of the January 5 meeting, the person familiar said.
Rice wrote in the email that the meeting she referenced was a “brief, follow-on conversation” after Obama was briefed the same day by Comey, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then-CIA Director John Brennan and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers about the soon-to-be-published intelligence community report that concluded that Russia meddled in the election to help Trump win. That briefing included mention of the relationship between incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, according to The Washington Post, as well as mention of the dossier.
As a foreign diplomat from a hostile country, Kislyak’s communications were regularly under surveillance authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He spoke by phone to Flynn in late December 2016, when Flynn told Kislyak that the incoming Trump administration would appreciate if Moscow did not retaliate, according to court filings.
In her email, Rice wrote that Obama wanted to know whether there was any reason they should not be sharing information related to Russia.
“From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia,” Rice wrote. “The President asked Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Comey said he would.”
Rice’s email was sent at 12:15 p.m., according to the time stamp in the document, which if correct indicates it was just minutes before the Obama administration officially left office.
In March 2017, The New York Times reported that some White House officials in their final days spread information across the government about Russia election meddling and possible contacts between Trump’s team and Russia.
“Did anyone instruct, request, suggest, or imply that you should send yourself the aforementioned Inauguration Day email memorializing President Obama’s meeting with Mr. Comey about the Trump/Russia investigation?” Grassley and Graham write in their letter.