On January 5, 2017, a meeting of senior Obama administration officials was held in the Oval Office. The topic – the Russia collusion investigation. Among the participants were President Obama, Vice President Biden, FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and several others.
In the final moments of the final day of the Obama administration, two weeks after the meeting took place, Susan Rice wrote an email to herself to document it. The email said:
On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present.
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.
(Long Redacted Paragraph)
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.
Declassification Date: 1/20/27
In February 2018, then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came across the email and found it rather unusual. First, it was written 15 days after the meeting had taken place. Second, she used the phrase “by the book” twice. They characterized her email as “odd.” They wrote a letter to Rice which can be viewed here.
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.
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.
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.’
The letter contained twelve questions which they gave Rice two weeks to answer.
Rice’s attorney answered the letter. He wrote, “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.”
He wrote that the Steele Dossier was not discussed in the meeting. It was written on January 20th, he wrote, “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.”
Recently, Attorney General William Barr discussed the early days of the Russia investigation with Fox News’ Bill Hemmer. He indicated that the early handling of the probe “may contain some red flags.” He said:
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.”
Several weeks ago, I wrote about a Washington Post article that discussed the early days of the investigation in detail, entitled “To Maintain Secrecy During Trump/Russia Meetings, Obama Officials Cut Video Feed In Situation Room.”
Initially, only four senior officials were allowed access to the Russia investigation intelligence. This group included Brennan, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and then-FBI Director James Comey. (Not even their aides were allowed in the beginning.)
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.
These meetings began in August 2016 and officials would cut the video feed. (There is no audio feed.) Breitbart’s Aaron Klein notes that the video feed allows aides to know when a meeting is in progress.
So, aides saw only “blacked-out” screens which was highly unusual. This was “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.”
No one knows what what discussed during these meetings, but Biden was part of the small group of officials who attended them.
In January 2018, Biden gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. He said:
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?
All we know is that this was not business as usual for top level Obama administration officials and they went to great lengths to maintain secrecy. And we know that Joe Biden was involved.