Senate Investigators Will Interview FBI Officials About Trump's Firing of Comey

Former FBI Director James Comey leaves after a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8. The Senate Judiciary Committee will interview two FBI officials about his firing. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

Following weeks of negotiations, the Department of Justice has agreed to let two FBI officials meet with Senate investigators, who are expected to raise questions related to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the bureau's probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email system.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating Comey's conduct as head of the bureau and President Donald Trump's firing of him in May. After the former director told the Senate Intelligence Committee in June that he had spoken with colleagues about his encounters with Trump, the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the Justice Department to make Jim Rybicki, Comey's former chief of staff, and Carl Ghattas, the executive assistant director in charge of the bureau's national security branch, available for interviews.

Related: FBI won't tell Congress what it knows about Comey's firing

The Justice Department denied that initial request, saying the interviews might conflict with the efforts of Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the FBI investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

The Justice Department did not specify the connection the two officials had to the special counsel probe. "Our understanding is that DOJ is saying that Mr. Rybicki and Mr. Ghattas supervise FBI agents who are supporting Mr. Mueller's investigation," Taylor Foy, a committee spokesman, told Newsweek by email in August. "The special counsel uses and interacts with the FBI like any other DOJ prosecutor." Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel, declined to comment at the time, citing the ongoing investigation.

On August 25, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a follow-up request to the Justice Department, saying, "There is no intent to seek information about these witnesses' current work with the special counsel's office. Rather, we seek their independent recollections, as fact witnesses, of events that occurred before and including Director Comey's removal." But the department again denied the request.

On Monday, Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in letters that he had learned the FBI had made members of the Office of the Special Counsel, which is also reviewing Comey's conduct and firing, sign nondisclosure agreements before making FBI witnesses available for interviews. (That office is a permanent federal investigative agency and separate from the Mueller effort.) In doing so, Grassley wrote, "the FBI held key information hostage." Spokespeople for both the FBI and the Office of the Special Counsel declined to comment on the letters.

Then, Grassley disclosed in another letter on Wedneday that the Justice Department has agreed to let his panel interview Ghattas and Rybicki. The interviews come with conditions from the Justice Department, according to Grassley. The department said the interviews must happen in a classified setting; the committee must not ask questions related to the Mueller investigation; a Justice Department representative must attend; and the witnesses and department must be able to access the interview transcripts afterward.

In the letter on Wednesday, addressed to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Mueller investigation, Grassley said that if the witnesses cannot answer certain questions, the committee might have to subpoena them. The letter did not indicate when the interviews will take place.