Updated at 5:46 p.m. ET
The White House acknowledged that chief of staff John Kelly and a top lawyer for President Trump in the Russia matter had been present for two secret briefings about the investigation on Thursday but hadn't stayed for the substance.
Kelly and newcomer attorney Emmet Flood went to the Justice Department for a meeting with two important House Republican chairmen and then went to the Capitol for the meeting with the leaders of the House, the Senate and the chambers' two intelligence committees.
"Neither Chief Kelly nor Mr. Flood actually attended the meetings but did make brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the president's desire for as much openness as possible under the law," the White House said in an official statement.
It continued: "They also conveyed the president's understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government. After making their brief comments they departed before the meetings officially started."
A White House official had told NPR earlier in the day the administration didn't understand why it might be a problem for Kelly to be present at the meetings, at which top law enforcement and intelligence officials were to present secret information about the Department of Justice Russia probe.
"I don't see what the issue is," the official told NPR.
Kelly and the White House have been brokering the conversations since Trump said on Twitter last weekend that he wanted to learn more about the FBI's use of confidential informants to interview campaign aides in 2016.
Flood's presence was unexpected.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders had said earlier that no one from the White House would attend the resulting conferences, but those arrangements have changed after the back-and-forth up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Critics charge that Trump has violated the long-standing independence of the Justice Department to pursue investigations without political interference and called it inappropriate for administration officials to join briefings about an investigation that bears so heavily on the president and his aides.
Congress already has a process by which members can keep themselves informed about the work of the Justice Department and the FBI, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member on the Senate intelligence committee.
So there was no need, he said, for the briefing at the Justice Department for House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., separate from one at the Capitol for the leaders of the House and Senate and the leaders of the intelligence committees.
"The White House's plan to provide a separate briefing for their political allies demonstrates that their interest is not in informing Congress but in undermining an ongoing criminal investigation," Warner said.
"If they insist upon carrying out this farce, the White House and its Republican allies in the House will do permanent, long-standing damage to the practice of bipartisan congressional oversight of intelligence," Warner also said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Nunes and the other members of the intelligence committees are simply doing their work as appropriate.
"I appreciate the [Justice] Department arranging today's briefing," Ryan said. "As always, I cannot and will not comment on a classified session. I look forward to the prompt completion of the intelligence committee's oversight work in this area now that they are getting the cooperation necessary for them to complete their work while protecting sources and methods."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told NPR separately on Thursday that he wouldn't discuss the classified briefing but that he retains confidence in special counsel Robert Mueller and in Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
At least one source and one method have already been compromised: Press reports revealed that Cambridge professor Stefan Halper met with three Trump campaign aides in 2016 as a confidential informant for the FBI. Investigators wanted to know about the overtures that people on Trump's campaign were receiving from Russian agents.
Trump denounced the FBI's use of a secret informant and said that had been tantamount to government-sponsored political snooping for Democrats.
"A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "If so, that would be a disgrace to this country. I hope there weren't, frankly ... but some man got paid based on what I read in the newspapers."
The Democrats who took part in the meetings on Thursday — House and Senate Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Adam Schiff and Warner — released a collective statement rejecting Trump's claim.
"Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a 'spy' in the Trump campaign, or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols."
Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by the president last year, responded via Twitter, denouncing attacks on the agency and defending its use of confidential informants as "tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country."
He said the president's attacks on the FBI "will do lasting damage to our country."
Nunes and Gowdy had been requesting secret information from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for months about the Russia investigation, and he had resisted. Nunes threatened to try to impeach Rosenstein or hold him in contempt of Congress. The deputy attorney general relented after Trump's demand that the Justice Department comply.
NPR correspondents Susan Davis, Sarah McCammon, Scott Neuman and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After days of buildup, senior intelligence and Justice Department officials sat down with congressional leaders today for two classified briefings. The White House brokered these meetings to give lawmakers access to documents related to a confidential FBI source who met with Trump campaign officials early on in the Russia investigation.
NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been following this and is here in the studio to tell us more. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: There was a lot of back-and-forth on who would attend these briefings. So start with the basics. Who was there?
LUCAS: Well, there were, as you said, two briefings. The man overseeing the Russia investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, as well as the head of the FBI and the Director of the National Intelligence, Dan Coats - they led these briefings.
The first meeting was at the Justice Department, and it was organized for the two House Republican Chairmen, Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy, who have been leading this push for more sensitive information related to the Russia investigation. In this instance, they want access to materials surrounding the FBI informant who was in contact with Trump campaign aides early on. The second briefing covered the same material, but it took place on Capitol Hill. It was for the bipartisan Gang of Eight - so the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate plus the top Democrat and Republican on the intelligence committees.
Now, these are not briefings that the FBI or Justice Department really wanted to give. They don't like to talk about their confidential sources. Those are very closely guarded for security reasons. But this is something that the White House was really insisting on.
SHAPIRO: And aside from the lawmakers, there were some surprise White House attendees - lawyers for President Trump.
LUCAS: That's right. There was the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, and the new White House attorney focused on the Russia investigation, man by the name of Emmet Flood. He also showed up for both of these briefings. And this is really (laughter), really irregular - highly irregular according to legal experts and even some Republican lawmakers.
For one, the White House had originally said that no White House officials would be at these meetings. And two, more importantly, this briefing was on materials from the Russia investigation, which of course relates to the president. So why, these people ask, is the president's lawyer present for any of the meeting when Trump is a possible subject of the investigation? Now, the White House for its part says that Kelly and Flood were there only to facilitate the meetings. They made short remarks, but they didn't stay for the briefings themselves.
SHAPIRO: OK. So you said there were some reactions from lawmakers to the presence of these White House officials there. What else did lawmakers say about these meetings?
LUCAS: Well, this was a class - this was a meeting about classified materials, so they didn't get into specifics. Democrats came out, said they didn't learn anything that would substantiate the allegations that there was a spy in the Trump campaign.
On the Republican side, our colleagues Sue Davis and Kelsey Snell sat down with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the briefing. They asked him how Americans can have faith in the FBI and the Justice Department when the president and others are attacking those institutions. And here's what he said.
MITCH MCCONNELL: The two investigations going on that I think will give us the answers to the questions that you raised - the IG investigation in the Justice Department and the Mueller investigation - I support both of them, and I don't really have anything to add to this subject based upon the Gang of Eight briefing that we had today, which was classified.
LUCAS: Now, the IG is the Justice Department inspector general who is looking into alleged surveillance abuses as well as the handling of the Clinton email investigation.
SHAPIRO: Chairman Devin Nunes and his allies have been attacking the Justice Department for months over the Russia investigation. Is this meeting likely to change that at all?
LUCAS: Probably not. Nunes and the president have been pushing this narrative for a long time that the Russia investigation is a witch hunt. These spying allegations are definitely part of that. Democrats of course say that this is really just an attempt by Republicans to undermine the Mueller investigation. But it's important to point out here that the witch hunt allegations are coming from Nunes and Trump allies in the House.
We haven't heard the same thing from most Republicans in the Senate. We already heard earlier what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to say. But the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, also says that Mueller should be allowed to do his job without interference. So this is not a pure partisan divide on this question.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas covering the investigation into the Russia investigation. Thanks, Ryan.
LUCAS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.