Republicans on Capitol Hill, backed by an angry President Donald Trump, defied pleas from the FBI and Democrats on Friday and released a previously classified memo alleging misconduct by senior U.S. officials investigating Trump’s presidential campaign.
The memo’s emergence marks a dramatic new stage in the political war around the federal investigations into Kremlin interference in the 2016 election. Republicans say the memo exposes anti-Trump bias among top law enforcement officials who helped launch a federal probe into whether Russia infiltrated Trump’s campaign team.
Democrats counter that the GOP is politicizing intelligence and distorting facts of the Trump-Russia investigation. And they warned Trump on Friday not to use the memo as a pretext for firing special counsel Robert Mueller or his supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Trump himself fumed over the document’s findings on Friday. “I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of people should be ashamed.”
Trump appeared to be referring to top FBI and Justice Department officials, who he said on Twitter earlier in the day had “politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” That echoed longtime charges from conservatives who allege that a “deep state” of anti-Trump bureaucrats has sought to destroy his presidency.
FBI director Christopher Wray opposed the memo’s release. But even an FBI statement expressing “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy” was not enough to deter Republicans publicly cheered on by conservative media outlets and the president’s son Donald Jr., who suggested on Twitter on Friday that the memo’s findings should mean “game over” for the Russia investigation.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the Republican move “reckless” and said it “demonstrates an astonishing disregard for the truth.”
“This unprecedented public disclosure of classified material during an ongoing criminal investigation is dangerous to our national security,” Warner added, saying the memo’s release would damage “our ability to protect Americans from threats around the globe.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, accused Republicans of “a coordinated propaganda effort to discredit, disable and defeat the Russia investigation.”
Orchestrated by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump ally, the memo charges “a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people” from government surveillance.
Specifically, it alleges that an October 2016 FBI application for a warrant to monitor the communications of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, relied on a controversial private intelligence dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. Steele was paid by Fusion GPS, a research firm retained by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee to continue opposition research on Trump it had previously begun for a Republican client.
The memo notes that the government must provide “information potentially favorable to the target of a FISA application,” but charges that FBI agents “withheld” their knowledge that Steele’s work had Democratic funding, and that Steele had openly expressed dislike for Trump. FISA is shorthand for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits federal surveillance of U.S. citizens suspected of acting in concert with a foreign government or terrorist group.
The memo also asserts that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told the House Intelligence Committee in December that the FBI would not have sought a warrant to spy on Page without the information in Steele’s dossier.
Steele’s reporting, which his associates have likened to raw, unverified intelligence findings, alleged that Page had plotted in 2016 with Russia’s top oil executive to influence U.S. foreign policy for a huge profit.
The dossier was also cited in several applications for 90-day renewals of the warrant on Page, a former energy executive who has given shifting accounts of a summer 2016 trip he took to Moscow while advising Trump’s campaign.
Three of the applications to monitor Page were approved by the FBI director at the time, James Comey, and by his deputy McCabe, who became acting director after Trump fired Comey.
Those applications were also approved by several other top Justice Department officials — including Sally Yates, a deputy attorney general in the Obama administration who briefly served as acting attorney general in January 2017; Dana Boente, who succeeded Yates; and Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. In each case, a federal judge who sits on the FISA court — whose deliberations are kept secret — approved the request to monitor Page’s communications.
The memo casts Steele, who once ran the Russia desk for Britain’s MI6 intelligence service,as biased and untrustworthy. It alleges that Steele told a top Justice Department official that he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected.” It also charges that Steele improperly shared information to the media and misled federal officials about his contacts with reporters.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the memo “cherrypicked” information from underlying intelligence. Schiff is one of a handful of lawmakers to have seen that underlying material.
Schiff said in a conference call that the memo exaggerated the Steele dossier’s importance to the FISA warrant application for Page. He said the application cited only portions of the dossier that referred specifically to Page — and added that some of that information had by then already been corroborated from other sources.
Schiff also said the memo mischaracterized McCabe as telling the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors that, as the memo puts it, “no surveillance warrant would have been sought … without the Steele dossier information.”
Schiff said the FBI deputy director was emphasizing the interdependence of all elements of a warrant application.
The FBI has argued that the memo distorts underlying intelligence and omits facts about evidence the bureau used to obtain its FISA warrants to spy on Page. The FISA law is designed to make monitoring an American citizen possible only in cases where there is very strong evidence of wrongdoing, and can be obtained only when a larger FBI investigation has already begun.
Most of the memo’s findings had been leaked in the weeks leading up to its release. But one unexpected aspect was its apparent confirmation of a New York Times report in December that the FBI first launched its Russia investigation in July 2016 after an intelligence alert related to Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulous — not from the findings of the dossier, which were provided to the FBI later.
The memo says that the Page FISA application contained unspecified information about Papadapoulos that “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016.” That would be consistent with the Times report that, two months earlier, Papadapoulos had disclosed to an Australian diplomat his knowledge that the Russians possessed stolen Democratic emails; the diplomat relayed that information to U.S. officials, who soon initiated what has become the sprawling investigation into Russian election meddling.
In a statement after the memo’s release, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation, said that “Congress has made inquiries concerning an issue of great importance for the country and concerns have been raised about the Department’s performance. I have great confidence in the men and women of this Department. But no Department is perfect.”
“I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth,” Sessions added.
Schiff anticipates that a rebuttal prepared by Democrats — which intelligence committee Republicans declined to release simultaneously with their own memo — would discredit the GOP arguments. The White House signaled that it was open to releasing the Democratic memo as well, saying in a statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that it “stands ready” to work with Congress on oversight requests.
“The premise of the Nunes memo is that the FBI and DOJ corruptly sought a FISA warrant on a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, and deliberately misled the court as part of a systematic abuse of the FISA process,” Schiff said. “As the Minority memo makes clear, none of this is true. The FBI had good reason to be concerned about Carter Page and would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA warrant.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will back the Democratic memo’s release once lawmakers have a chance to review it.
Trump critics fear that the president will invoke the Republican-crafted memo to undermine Mueller’s ongoing investigation, which has crept into Trump’s inner circle in recent weeks. Senior Republicans, including Ryan, have warned colleagues not to connect the memo’s findings to Mueller’s inquiry, but Trump’s most fervent allies in Congress have already insisted that its findings are grounds for ending Mueller’s work.
Democrats warned Trump against using the memo as grounds for firing Mueller or his supervisor, Rosenstein.
“We write to inform you that we would consider such an unwarranted action as an attempt to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ Leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre,” she added, referring to Watergate.
Page has proved an enigmatic figure in the Russia investigation, a clueless naïf to some and a potential Russian agent to others. A former Moscow-based investment banker and energy executive who has argued for warmer U.S.-Russian relations, Page has denied collaborating with Russia. Trump campaign officials approved a trip that Page took in June 2016 to deliver a speech in Moscow, where Page now admits he also met with Russian government officials.
Unrelated court documents show that Russian spies in New York sought to recruit Page in 2013, and that he provided them with documents from a class he was teaching at the time.
Page plays a critical role in Steele’s dossier, many of whose findings have not been independently verified and are vehemently disputed by Page and other Trump associates. It alleges that on a July 2016 trip to Moscow, Page met secretly with the head of Russia’s state-run oil conglomerate, Rosneft, and discussed a plan in which Page would enjoy a huge profit from the pending sale of Rosneft if he helped to roll back U.S. economic sanctions on Russia.
In a statement on Friday, Page hailed the intelligence committee for revealing what he called an “unprecedented abuse of process,” and said it would be a step “toward helping to restore law and order in our great country.” Page vowed to continue legal action against the Justice Department.
Soon after the memo’s release on Friday, Comey himself weighed in on Twitter, calling the document “[d]ishonest and misleading” and saying it had “destroyed trust with Intelligence Community damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”
“The American people should know that they continue to be well served by the world’s preeminent law enforcement agency,” the FBI Agents Association said in a statement shortly after the memo was released. “FBI Special Agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission.”
In recent days, a handful of Senate Republicans also pleaded with their House counterparts to use caution in its decision to release the memo. In a statement that obliquely referenced the ongoing fight, Sen. John McCain blasted “attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice.”
“Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows,” McCain said. “If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
Ryan, the House speaker, earlier this week urged his colleagues not to overstate the memo’s findings, and said nothing in it raised questions about Rosenstein or Mueller.
Talking points circulated by House GOP leaders on Friday underscored that point: “The Memo is NOT intended to undermine the Special Counsel” and “The Memo is NOT intended to undermine DOJ or FBI.”
Some White House aides have also privately raised concerns that the memo’s revelations wouldn’t match the weeks of breathless speculation in conservative media about its contents.
Some House Republicans struck the same tone on Friday.
“Allegations in memo are serious, but must not be used to impugn the FBI or discredit the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” tweeted Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), adding: “[W]e must not allow this memo to become a distraction from work we need to do.”
But many other Republicans depicted the memo as scandalous.
“FBI takes dossier to secret court to get secret warrant to spy on American,” tweeted Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “FBI did NOT INCLUDE recorded bias of dossier author Steele when he told DOJ attorney Bruce Ohr he ‘was desperate that @realDonaldTrump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.'”
“It is time for the people to take their government back,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Political bias from independent government agencies is corruption when applied to our justice system.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, whose staff was denied access to the memo while the House committee deliberated on its release, declined to comment.
The memo plunges Trump into deeper conflict with Justice Department and FBI officials who he has criticized as biased against him since before his inauguration.
Earlier this week, McCabe abruptly left his post after facing intense public scrutiny from the president. Trump had questioned McCabe’s impartiality in handling the Russia investigation, citing the fact that his wife received a donation from a Hillary Clinton political ally during her failed run for state office in Virginia years ago.
Last week the president called the missing text messages between two FBI employees accused of bias against him “one of the biggest stories in a long time.” The messages, sent between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, have become a rallying cry for some on the right alleging that a vast conspiracy to sabotage Trump’s presidency is afoot at law enforcement agencies. Strzok and Page were formerly involved in Mueller’s investigation.
In a November tweet, the president alluded to the existence of a “deep state” at the FBI and Justice Department, a reference to the conspiracy that government officials are working to undermine the White House for political reasons.
Despite his forceful response on Friday, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway insisted that Trump held deep respect for FBI employees.
“The president has stated many times that he respects the rank and file of the FBI, the 25,000 men and women who do a great job there,” Conway told Fox News.
Conservative media outlets applauded Trump and the House Republicans on Friday. And Donald Trump Jr. tweeted dozens of times about the memo.
“McCabe knew that the FISA warrant was obtained using shady dossier and that all extensions were based on the original application,” the younger Trump tweeted. “The Obama administration then used information that Hillary paid for to justify spying on @realDonaldTrump. If I got that right should be game over.”
But some former law enforcement and intelligence officials remained skeptical, expressing alarm at the president’s actions and rhetoric toward the FBI and DOJ.
James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, said Trump’s charge that the FBI and DOJ had “politicized” their investigations was “the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Transparency is a great thing, but let’s be factual and objective about it, and this clearly is a pretty blatant political act,” Clapper added during a Friday morning appearance on CNN, rebuffing Republicans who say the memo’s release will bolster government transparency.
Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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