President Donald Trump on Friday announced the declassification of a disputed House memo that alleges wrongdoing by top bureau officials, allowing its release over the objection of congressional Democrats and intelligence leaders.
“The memo was sent to Congress, it was declassified,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office. “Congress will do whatever they’re going to do, but I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country.”
The four-page document, compiled by the staff of the House Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has sparked tense clashes between Republican and Democratic officials. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday called for Nunes to be stripped of his position atop the panel because of how he has handled the matter.
Republicans pushed back, stressing that the memo’s release was necessary given the seriousness of its claims.
Here’s what you need to know about the White House’s decision.
What’s in the Nunes memo?
The document alleges that senior FBI officials improperly used a secret surveillance program, commonly known as FISA, to target the Trump campaign in 2016.
The memo portrays bureau officials as overstepping agency rules in their investigation of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide, and his ties to Russian officials, while carrying out their probe of foreign interference in the 2016 election.
One of the key contentions in the document is that authorities obtained a warrant to surveil Page without the adequate evidence required for a FISA warrant.
You can read the full text of the memo here.
Why did House Republicans want to disclose it?
House GOP officials have issued calls for transparency and argued that the document ought to be made public.
Republican lawmakers have cited the still-undisclosed memo to allege the existence of an anti-Trump bias at the highest levels of the Justice Department.
Trump, prior to the White House’s unveiling his decision, slammed the FBI and DOJ for having “politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.”
Nunes on Friday said he hoped the decision to declassify the document would “shine a light” and increase accountability on intelligence agencies.
“The Committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the America people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes,” Nunes said in a statement.
But other top Republican lawmakers were critical of the House panel’s handling of the declassification process.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered a not-so-subtle rebuke of the announcement on Friday.
“The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests — no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s,” McCain said. A longtime Russia hawk who helped shape a bipartisan package of sanctions against Moscow last year, McCain added that “Special Counsel [Robert] Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded.”
Why did Democrats oppose its release?
After House Republicans voted overwhelmingly on Monday to release the memo, Schiff slammed the decision at a news conference on Capitol Hill, calling it “deeply regrettable” and accusing Republicans of politicizing the security-classification process.
House Democrats were sharply critical of Republicans’ decision to block the release of a second memo, written by Democratic committee staff, that raised concerns over the handling of the intelligence that underlay the memo compiled by Nunes’ staff.
Schiff also charged late on Wednesday that Republican leaders had secretly altered the document approved by the panel before shipping it off to the president, calling for them to “immediately withdraw the document that it sent to the White House.”
Schumer and Pelosi urged Ryan on Thursday to strip Nunes of his role leading the House panel over his push to release the memo.
“Chairman Nunes’ deliberately dishonest actions make him unfit to serve as Chairman, and he must be immediately removed from this position,” Pelosi said in a statement.
After the declassification was announced Friday, congressional Democrats hammered the decision.
“Law enforcement opposes this. The intelligence community opposes this. Even many Republicans oppose this,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) wrote on social media. “This is dangerous territory, it disrespects law enforcement, and it’s an alarming partisan attack on efforts to investigate hostile foreign interference in our democracy.”
Why is it controversial?
Top intelligence officials expressed extreme unease about the memo’s release, with the FBI issuing a rare and forceful statement on Wednesday citing “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The FBI “was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the bureau said. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent a letter to Nunes last week warning that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” for the memo to be released “without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum.”
While Nunes has since reviewed the memo with FBI Director Christopher Wray, Schiff told reporters on Monday that Wray said he felt that the evaluation was insufficient to determine whether the memo is fit for disclosure.
“The review did not satisfy, I think, either the bureau or [DOJ’s] concerns,” Schiff said. “The director of the FBI asked for the opportunity to come before the committee and express those concerns.”
The FBI Agents Association on Friday issued a statement saying the bureau would remain steadfast in its mission in the wake of the memo’s declassification.
“FBI Special Agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission,” the group wrote.
How was it approved?
The House Intelligence Committee on Monday voted in favor of releasing the memo, despite opposition from Democrats and the Justice Department.
The party-line vote meant the decision on public disclosure moved to the White House, with Trump facing a five-day window to determine whether to release the memo. Though the White House could object to the panel’s decision, all indications on Thursday were that Trump was set to sign off on the memo’s release.
The White House said earlier this week that it would evaluate the memo with advisers before making a decision.
The president on Friday declined to block the document’s disclosure, paving the way for its release.
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