WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Republican lawmakers often complain when President Donald Trump’s controversial comments suck up the headlines and undercut their messaging. But this week, they tripped over their own feet.
The firestorm over whether to release a classified, GOP-crafted memo alleging FBI misconduct has totally drowned out the House-Senate GOP retreat here in West Virginia. Republicans wanted to tout their tax bill and advocate for their 2018 priorities, from infrastructure to military spending. But the controversial document of their own making was virtually the only thing reporters wanted to talk about.
The rank-and-file and leadership alike were peppered with questions about the memo drafted by aides to House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes. Fully seven out of the nine questions asked during a joint press conference with Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell centered on it. Reporters grilled them on the FBI director’s opposition to unveiling the document and whether they thought Nunes, a Trump-loyalist, should remain chairman.
“They’re just playing politics and they’re just looking for distraction, is what I get out of that,” Ryan said of Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer calling for Nunes to relinquish his gavel.
Ryan changed the subject quickly: “Look, the tax cuts are working.”
Ryan wasn’t the only one trying to pivot to a different topic. Some policy-focused reporters shouted at Ryan and McConnell as they exited the room, begging them to take questions about the GOP agenda. At one point, House Armed Service Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) — who came to the media center to brief reporters on defense issues — had to tell the press that he’s not an expert on the sensitive surveillance matter at hand.
“I saw there were some stories this morning about edits [to the memo]. But I personally have not gone through to look at what was in and what was changed, so I really am not in a position where I can offer anything,” he responded to a question about potential changes Nunes had made to the memo.
When several similar questions came his way, he reiterated: “I just want to emphasize that I’m not really the expert on this topic.”
The White House’s effort to look ahead to the midterms and tout the president’s first-year accomplishments at the retreat were also overshadowed by questions about the process surrounding the memo. On Air Force One returning from the retreat where Trump spoke, a senior administration official told reporters that the president is likely to tell Congress on Friday that he is comfortable releasing the memo.
“I doubt there will be any redaction. It’s in Congress’ hands after that,” the senior administration official added.
Obsession over the document comes as House Intelligence Republicans ready its release over intense opposition from Democrats and the FBI, which has said the memo omits crucial facts. Sources who have seen it say it alleges that FBI officials abused a sensitive surveillance program — using a disputed dossier financed by the campaign of Hillary Clinton — to obtain a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump campaign adviser.
But Democrats and law-enforcement officials say the memo mischaracterizes the underlying intelligence — and they’ve raised concerns that releasing it publicly, without proper context, could jeopardize national security and further erode trust in federal law enforcement.
Democrats in Congress say the effort smacks of an attempt to tarnish Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.
The issue even appeared to divide Senate and House Republicans on Thursday. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said House Republicans should allow the Senate Intelligence Committee to view the memo before it’s made public — and that Republicans should release a Democratic rebuttal memo to show both sides of the argument.
“It would be helpful,” Thune said. “I think that [Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard] Burr would like to see it and hasn’t been able to yet.”
Thune added: “I think [House Republicans] have to take into consideration what the FBI is saying… I think they need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say about how this bears on our national security.”
House Republicans resisted such appeals. In a gaggle with reporters, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) argued that the Democratic memo had errors that needed to be fixed. A few hours later, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters the GOP memo needed to be released immediately.
“The document has been very carefully worked with regard to thousands of pages of source documents, which as chairman of the Judiciary Committee I’ve had access to and read them,” Goodlatte said. “There is a problem with several people in some of the highest levels in the bureau. And that needs to investigated and the American people need to understand why. And that is going to be aided — not completely — but aided by the release of this memo.”
The Ryan-McConnell press conference best highlighted the GOP’s self-inflicted wound. The first question lobbed at the duo was an inquiry about the FBI’s resistance to the memo’s release.
Ryan walked a tightrope, eager to offer support to his members while arguing that Mueller wasn’t the target. That’s despite reports Trump himself views the memo as a way to undercut Mueller’s probe.
“The memo is Congress doing its job and conducting legitimate oversight over a very unique law, FISA, and if mistakes were made and individuals did something wrong, then it is our job as the legislative branch of government to conduct oversight over the executive branch,” Ryan responded. “What this is not is an indictment on our institutions, of our justice system. This memo is not an indictment of the FBI… it does not impugn the Muller investigation.”
Ryan then waved off a pair of questions about whether Nunes should relinquish his gavel following calls for his ousting. A couple questions were snuck in about government funding and immigration before it was back to the memo again.
Reporters then asked the speaker about last-minute changes to the memo; Ryan suggested the process had been followed. When a reporter asked if McConnell agreed with Ryan’s backing of Nunes, the majority leader deflected: “I don’t have any suggestions to make for the speaker. I think he’s handling this just right.”
As the pair left the room, one reporter yelled, “What about immigration?”
Nancy Cook contributed to this report.
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