[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ewly-examined emails among high-ranking U.S. intel officials at the time—including then-Director James Comey and his chief of staff James Rybicki—reference a “sensitive matter team.”
Based on the context of the emails, the “sensitive matter” appears to be the Trump-Russia narrative, and political opposition research funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The research— known as the “Steele dossier”— was peddled to the press and secretly used, in part, to justify controversial FBI wiretaps against at least one Trump associate.
The emails were first obtained by the Justice Department Inspector General and recently turned over to the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) wrote a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray Monday asking for the identity of all members of the “sensitive matter team.”
According to Sen. Johnson’s letter, Comey chief of staff Rybicki emailed unidentified recipients on the morning of Jan. 6, 2017 stating, “[Director Comey] is coming to HQ briefly now for an update on the sensitive matter team.”
Later in the day, Comey briefed President-elect Trump on a few of the salacious, unverified allegations in the Steele dossier. The next day, Comey reported on his briefing in an email to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, FBI General Counsel James Baker and Chief of Staff Rybicki. (All four men have since resigned or been fired from the FBI.)
“I said there was something [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper wanted me to speak to [President Elect Trump] about alone or in a very small group,” Comey wrote in the email. “I then executed the session exactly as I had planned…I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook.” (Clapper now works as a CNN contributor.)
“Flood is Coming”
A day later, Jan. 8, FBI Deputy Director McCabe emailed Comey and Rybicki with the subject title: “Flood is coming.”
“CNN is close to going forward with the sensitive story,” McCabe wrote. “The trigger for them is they know the material was discussed in the [presidential] brief and presented in an attachment.”
Also included on that email were FBI associate deputy director David Bowdich and FBI assistant director for public affairs Michael Kortan. (Bowdich was recently appointed FBI Deputy Director. Kortan retired in February and had also served as an aide to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who’s investigating alleged Trump-Russia collusion.)
Within an hour of the “Flood is coming” email, McCabe emailed then-Deputy General Sally Yates and her top aide, Principal Deputy Attorney General Matthew Axelrod, with the subject title “News.” (Yates has since been fired and Axelrod resigned.)
“Just an FYI, and as expected, it seems CNN is close to running a story about the sensitive reporting.”
On Jan. 10, CNN published a story headlined, “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.” The same day, BuzzFeed News published the contents of the “Steele dossier.”
Sen. Johnson’s letter to FBI Director Wray about all of this also asks for details about President-elect Trump’s briefing and communications between Comey and Clapper.
Clapper reportedly told Congress he never discussed the Steele dossier or any other intelligence related to Russia election interference with journalists. [Note added May 22 10:40p ET]: There are conflicting reports as to whether Clapper subsequently acknowledged discussing the dossier with CNN’s Jake Tapper or other journalists. [hr]