White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday accused former FBI Director James Comey of "clear" violations of "federal laws", but stopped just short of urging the Department of Justice to prosecute him over her allegations.
The former FBI Director was sacked by the president last spring and has conducted his own round of political rehabilitation since.
"Under these circumstances and consistent with the Department's long-standing policy regarding the confidentiality and sensitivity of information relating to pending matters, the Department can not make Mr. Ghattas nor Mr. Rybicki available for transcribed interviews at this time", according to a July letter signed by Acting Assistant Attorney General Samuel Ramer, which was reviewed by CNN. "Are you encouraging - is this White House encouraging the Department of Justice to investigate the former FBI Director, James Comey, for leaking information?" the reporter asked.
The committee, however, has not been able to interview those witnesses, despite asking that to happen by September 1.
"His actions were improper and likely could have been illegal", she added.
But the Justice Department told lawmakers this week that it would decline to make the FBI officials available "to protect the integrity of the special counsel's investigation". A spokesperson for the special counsel declined to comment. The White House said Trump made the decision because of the Justice Department's criticism of how Comey handled the Clinton email investigation, but Trump personally contradicted the explanation.
The Justice Department's refusal to make Ghattas and Rybicki available is an indication that Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department's investigation into potential ties between Russian Federation and the Trump campaign, sees them as relevant witnesses to the events leading up to Comey's firing.
The Senate judiciary committee has not yet said Mueller can have access to the Trump Jr. transcript, citing a standing rule of the Senate that requires approval from the full chamber to provide any information to the executive branch to use in a pending investigation.
The question of whether Comey broke the law is much less clear than Sanders made it seem, said Jeffrey Cramer, a former assistant US attorney for the Northern District of IL and a managing director at Berkeley Research Group.
The Senate judiciary committee revealed in an August 31 press release that Comey began drafting a letter in April or May of 2016 to exonerate former secretary of state Hillary Clinton of charges in her email investigation-which was "before the FBI interviewed up to 17 key witnesses including former Secretary Clinton and several of her closest aides". But those decisions can produce friction with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He told the House judiciary committee under oath on September 28, 2016, that he made his decision to not recommend charges against Clinton after the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewed her on July 2, 2016. But Grassley so far has been non-committal about a public session. "What I've said and what I'm talking about are facts. We've got to make sure that the people that gave the transcript get a chance to check it for accuracy".