Former FBI Director James Comey suggested to then-President Barack Obama in a January 2017 meeting that the National Security Council [NSC] might not want to pass "sensitive information related to Russia" to then-incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to a newly declassified email that Flynn's predecessor sent herself on Inauguration Day.
The note from Susan Rice was declassified by Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell and transmitted to the Justice Department. Fox News obtained a copy Tuesday from GOP Sen. Ron Johnson's office, which had sought access to the document.
The email Rice sent to herself on Jan. 20, 2017, documented a Jan. 5 Oval Office meeting with Obama and others, during which he provided guidance on how law enforcement needed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. Parts of it were released previously, but the section on Comey's response had been classified as "TOP SECRET" until now.
The section showed that Comey affirmed to Obama he was proceeding "by the book," and went on to discuss concerns about Flynn's known conversations with Russia's ambassador at the time -- conversations that would play a role later in the criminal case against Flynn.
Rice continued: "From a national security perspective, Comey said he does have some concerns that incoming NSA Flynn is speaking frequently with Russian Ambassador [Sergey] Kislyak. Comey said that could be an issue as it relates to sharing sensitive information. President Obama asked if Comey was saying that the NSC should not pass sensitive information related to Russia to Flynn."
Rice then wrote, "Comey replied, 'potentially.' He added that he has no indication thus far that Flynn has passed classified information to Kislyak, but he noted that 'the level of communication is unusual.'"
In a statement Tuesday evening about the email's release, a representative for Rice stressed that “no discussion of law enforcement matters or investigations took place, despite accusations to the contrary.” The spokeswoman also insisted the Obama administration did not change the way it briefed Flynn, saying Rice briefed Flynn for more than 12 hours on four separate occasions during the transition.
“Ambassador Rice did not alter the way she briefed Michael Flynn on Russia as a result of Director Comey’s response,” Rice representative Erin Pelton said.
Republicans have zeroed in on the Rice email amid heightened questions over the handling of the Russia probe and top-level awareness inside the Obama administration.
Johnson, R-Wis., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had requested the Trump administration declassify Rice's entire email late Monday.
Rice’s email to herself was first flagged in 2018 by Grassley, the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the current chairman. The email was partially unclassified at the time and appeared to detail the Jan. 5, 2017, meeting, which included Obama, Rice, Comey, then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then-Vice President Joe Biden.
"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 emailed to herself. "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."
The email also appeared to reflect Obama's guidance on sharing sensitive information with both the Russians and the incoming Trump administration.
Rice wrote that 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."
This was where the original version of the email was redacted -- containing information about Comey's response.
After that section, 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."
Russia probe files released as part of the Justice Department's move to drop its case against Flynn brought renewed focus on Rice's email in recent weeks. An exhibit in the DOJ's motion to dismiss the Flynn case earlier this month detailed a special counsel interview of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. The interview indicated Obama was aware of Flynn’s intercepted December 2016 phone calls with Kislyak during the presidential transition period.
The document noted Yates learned about the calls during that meeting.
After the briefing, Obama asked Yates and Comey to "stay behind," and said he had "learned of the information about Flynn" and his conversation with Russia's ambassador about sanctions. Obama "specified that he did not want any additional information on the matter, but was seeking information on whether the White House should be treating Flynn any differently, given the information.”
At that point, the document said, "Yates had no idea what the president was talking about, but figured it out based on the conversation. Yates recalled Comey mentioning the Logan Act, but can't recall if he specified there was an 'investigation.' Comey did not talk about prosecution in the meeting."
This would eventually lead to Flynn being interviewed, amid supposed concern he had violated the obscure and never-successfully-enforced Logan Act, and later pleading guilty to lying to investigators about his Kislyak talks. He later sought to withdraw that plea.
The mention of that Oval Office meeting aligned with Rice’s email describing the Jan. 5, 2017 meeting.
Rice's office downplayed the significance of that email when it first surfaced in early 2018.
Meanwhile, Grenell's move to declassify the Rice email came just days after he declassified a list of top Obama administration officials who purportedly requested to "unmask" the identity of Flynn during the presidential transition period.
The roster featured top-ranking figures including Brennan, Biden, Comey, Clapper and Obama's then-chief of staff Denis McDonough.
The attention on Obama administration discussions at the time has fueled a fiery war of words in Washington over the origins of the Russia case -- with President Trump describing it as "the greatest political crime in the history of our country."
The president even called on Graham to call Obama to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Graham balked, voicing concerns about the implications of such a spectacle.
Then on Monday, Attorney General Bill Barr weighed in, saying he did not expect U.S. Attorney John Durham's review into the origins of the Russia probe to lead to a "criminal investigation" of either Obama or Biden.
Barr stressed that "Not every abuse of power, no matter how outrageous, is necessarily a federal crime."
"As for President Obama and Vice President Biden, whatever their level of involvement based on what I know, I don't expect Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man," Barr said. "Our concern of potential criminality is focused on others."