NEW YORK — Vice President Joe Biden was documented as being present in the Oval Office for a conversation about the controversial Russia probe between President Obama, disgraced ex-FBI chief James Comey, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and other senior officials including Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice.
In an action characterized as “odd” last year by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Rice memorialized the confab in an email to herself describing Obama as starting “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.’”
Grassley, in a letter to Rice, commented: “It strikes us as odd that, among your activities in the final moments on the final day of the Obama administration, you would feel the need to send yourself such an unusual email purporting to document a conversation involving President Obama and his interactions with the FBI regarding the Trump/Russia investigation.”
Grassley noted the unusual timing of the email sent by Rice to herself more than two weeks after the January 5, 2017 White House meeting on the Russia investigation, but mere hours before she vacated the White House for the incoming Trump administration.
The email, Grassley documented, was sent by Rice to herself on Trump’s inauguration day of January 20, 2017.
“If the timestamp is correct, you sent this email to yourself at 12:15 pm, presumably a very short time before you departed the White House for the last time,” Grassley wrote to Rice in a letter seeking clarification on a number of issues regarding the email and the Oval Office briefing at which Biden was documented as being present.
Also in the email, Rice used the “by the book” phraseology a second time, writing (emphasis added):
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.” 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.
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.
The next part of Rice’s email was classified.
After that, Rice discussed the possibility of issues with sharing classified information with the incoming Trump administration — presumably referring to alleged concern that the Trump campaign had been colluding with Russia.
That part of the email reads:
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.
The detail about Biden being present at the meeting with Rice and Comey is newly relevant amid questions about Biden’s possible role in the Russia collusion probe scandal. It comes after Breitbart News reported last week that Biden was reportedly one of the few Obama administration officials who participated in secretive meetings during the early stages of the Obama-era intelligence community’s initial operations regarding suspected Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
That tidbit was contained deep inside a 7,700-plus word Washington Post article published June 23, 2017 in which the newspaper also detailed the highly compartmentalized nature of the original Russia interference investigation and the manner in which other U.S. intelligence agencies were deliberately kept in the dark. Part of the efforts eventually involved unsubstantiated and ultimately discredited charges made by the Christopher Steele dossier that Trump campaign officials were colluding with Russia.
Biden’s largely unreported role in the initial Obama administration meetings on the matter of Russian interference could spark further questions now that Attorney General William Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney to investigate the origins of the Russia collusion claims.
Two weeks ago, Barr commented that the intelligence community’s early handling of the Russia investigation may itself raise questions. He noted that it was first handled at a “very senior level” and then by a “small group.”
Meanwhile, Rice’s unusual email to herself stressing the “by the book” concept raised eyebrows for Grassley.
In his letter to Rice, Grassley wrote that “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.’”
An attorney for Rice responded to Grassley’s letter saying Rice wrote the email to herself with the goal of “memorializ[ing] an important national security discussion,” since “President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.”
The attorney denied that the Steele dossier, financed by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was discussed in the Oval Office meeting.
Regarding the time stamp on the email, the attorney said that noon was not accurate and that the email was sent in the morning “since Ambassador Rice departed the White House shortly before noon on January 20.”
Still, Rice waited two weeks after the meeting to memorialize the conversation and sent the memo as one of her final acts in the White House on the last day.
The attorney said that Rice waited until the last minute “because that was the first opportunity she had to do so, given the particularly intense responsibilities of the National Security Advisor during the remaining days of the Administration and transition.”
Meanwhile, as Biden’s possible role is being discussed, Barr, the attorney general, two weeks ago noted the intelligence community’s early handling of the Russia investigation may contain some red flags.
In an interview on Fox News, Barr stated:
The thing that’s interesting about this is that this was handled at a very senior level of these departments. It wasn’t handled in the ordinary way that investigations or counterintelligence activities are conducted. It was sort of an ad hoc, small group — and most of these people are no longer with the FBI or the CIA or the other agencies involved. I think there’s a misconception out there that we know a lot about what happened. The fact of the matter is, Bob Mueller did not look at the government’s activities.
The lengthy Washington Post article from 2017 detailed the closed circle of Obama administration officials who were involved in overseeing the initial efforts related to the Russia investigation — a circle than was narrowly widened to include Biden, according to the newspaper report.
According to the newspaper, in the summer of 2016, CIA Director John Brennan convened a “secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.”
The Post described the unit as so secretive it functioned as a “sealed compartment” hidden even from the rest of the U.S. intelligence community; a unit whose workers were all made to sign additional non-disclosure forms.
The unit reported to top officials, the newspaper documented:
They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.
The number of Obama administration officials who were allowed access to the Russia intelligence was also highly limited, the Post reported. At first only four senior officials were involved, and not Biden. Those officials were CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and then-FBI Director James Comey. Their aides were all barred from attending the initial meetings, the Post stated.
The circle of those who attended the secretive meetings on the matter soon widened to include Biden, the Post reported (emphasis added):
The secrecy extended into the White House.
Rice and White House homeland-security adviser Lisa Monaco convened meetings in the Situation Room to weigh the mounting evidence of Russian interference and generate options for how to respond. At first, only four senior security officials were allowed to attend: Brennan, Clapper, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey. Aides ordinarily allowed entry as “plus-ones” were barred.
Gradually, the circle widened to include Vice President Biden and others. Agendas sent to Cabinet secretaries — including John F. Kerry at the State Department and Ashton B. Carter at the Pentagon — arrived in envelopes that subordinates were not supposed to open. Sometimes the agendas were withheld until participants had taken their seats in the Situation Room.
Adding another layer of secrecy, the newspaper reported that when the closed cabinet sessions on Russia began in the White House Situation Room in August, the video feed from the main room was cut off during the meetings.
The feed, which allows only for video and not audio, is usually kept on so that senior aides can see when a meeting takes place.
The paper reported:
The blacked-out screens were seen as an ominous sign among lower-level White House officials who were largely kept in the dark about the Russia deliberations even as they were tasked with generating options for retaliation against Moscow.
It was not clear what went on inside those meetings and how many of them included Biden’s participation. The meetings progressed during the period that the Steele dossier was reported to the FBI.
The dossier was cited as evidence in three successful FISA applications signed by Comey to obtain warrants to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The second and third were renewal applications since a FISA warrant must be renewed every 90 days.
Comey, Brennan and Clapper have been the subjects of a dispute in recent weeks over which top Obama administration officials advocated for the infamous dossier to be utilized as evidence in the Russia collusion investigation, as Breitbart News reported.
Last year, meanwhile, Biden publicly defended the Obama administration’s handling of the Russia probe amid accusations that the Obama White House didn’t do enough and waited until after the election to make the Russia interference charges public.
“I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out,” Biden said last January at a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. “The bottom line was it was tricky as hell. It’s easy to say now, well maybe we should have said more. But I’ll ask you a rhetorical question — can you imagine if the President of the United States called a press conference in October … and said, ‘Tell you what, the Russians are trying to interfere with our elections and we have to do something about it.’ What do you think would have happened?”
Trump, however, previously suggested Obama’s not being forceful enough on the matter was politically motivated.
Taking to Twitter, Trump wrote:
The reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would win … and did not want to “rock the boat.” He didn’t “choke,” he colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary no good.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
Joshua Klein contributed research to this article.