Senator Wants Email About Oval Office Meeting Featuring Obama Declassified

May 19, 2020 Updated: May 20, 2020

Update: The email was declassified Tuesday after the request from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

Previous story below.

A Senate committee chairman is calling for the declassification of an unusual email that recounts what took place in an Oval Office meeting in January 2017, shortly before then-President Barack Obama left office.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, asked Attorney General William Barr to declassify the portion of the email that remains shielded from public view.

“It is essential that Congress and the American people understand what occurred” during a Jan. 5, 2017, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Johnson wrote in a letter to Barr on May 18.

The declassification of the email “will assist these efforts,” he said.

The email was sent on Jan. 20, 2017, by Susan Rice, who was national security adviser at the time, to herself. In it, she recounted the meeting involving herself, Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden, then-FBI Director James Comey, and then-acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.

Rice recalled Obama discussing an investigation into Trump and the president-elect’s campaign.

Obama told Comey he was committed to ensuring “that every aspect of this issue is handled by the intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book,'” according to Rice.

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Newly appointed national security adviser Susan Rice speaks after President Barack Obama appointed her during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on June 5, 2013. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Obama also instructed Rice and others to potentially limit access of the incoming Trump administration to classified information related to Russia.

“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 wrote in the email to herself.

While most of the email is viewable by the public, a block of text appearing to contain one long paragraph is redacted, or blacked out.

A spokesperson for Rice told Politico that the former official “would welcome the release of the entirety of her Jan. 20, 2017, email.”

The email was initially discovered by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). In a letter to Rice in 2018, they described the message as odd and unusual.

“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,” they wrote in a letter to Rice.

“In addition, 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.’”

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President Donald Trump in the White House with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (C) and chief strategist Steve Bannon (R). (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Grassley said on the Senate floor last week that on Jan. 12, 2017, someone in the Obama administration illegally leaked details of a call between Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Michael Flynn, then-President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security adviser.

Twelve days later, Comey chose to ignore normal protocols in sending agents to interview Flynn, something Comey later bragged about.

“I sent them. Something I probably wouldn’t have done or even gotten away with in a more organized investigation, a more organized administration,” he said in 2018.

In a recently declassified interview, Rice told lawmakers in 2017 after Trump entered office that there wasn’t any “smoking” evidence of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian actors.

“I don’t recall intelligence that I would consider evidence to that effect that I saw … conspiracy prior to my departure,” she said. Asked about evidence of coordination or collusion, she said she didn’t recall any intelligence or evidence to that effect.

In a response to the senators, Rice’s lawyer said Obama sought guidance from the FBI and Department of Justice in light of “concerning communications between members of the Trump team and Russian officials,” including Flynn.

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White House national security adviser Susan Rice listens to incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn at the 2017 Passing the Baton conference, at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on Jan. 10, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Given the importance of and sensitivity of the subject matter, and upon the advice of the White House Counsel’s Office, Ambassador Rice created a permanent record of the discussion,” the lawyer said.

Rice is one of the Obama administration officials who may be subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Graham, the chairman, announced May 18 that the committee would discuss subpoenaing Rice, Yates, and other officials before voting on June 4.

Yates told FBI agents she was stunned when, during the 2017 meeting, Obama revealed he knew about the probe into Flynn.

Obama told them he had “learned of the information about Flynn” and the retired lieutenant general’s discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Yates “was so surprised by the information she was hearing that she was having a hard time processing it and listening to the conversation at the same time,” members of special counsel Robert Mueller team who interviewed her wrote in a report about the interview.

Yates told them that she didn’t know what Obama was talking about, but figured it out based on the conversation. She did not know who told Obama about the details. She recalled Comey mentioning the Logan Act, a centuries-old law that’s never been successfully prosecuted.

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