FBI and Justice Department officials got a warrant to spy on a Trump campaign associate by misleading a surveillance court judge, House Republicans contend in a newly released memo that Democrats have dismissed as a contrived account intended to protect the president.
The Republican memo, written under the direction of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, cites “a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses” of the foreign intelligence surveillance court.
Democrats assailed the document as mischaracterizing and cherry-picking information to make a politically motivated case and warned against using it as a pretext to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Such a move would be seen as “an attempt to obstruct justice” and spark “a constitutional crisis,” top House and Senate Democrats wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump.
The Republicans suggest the Federal Bureau of Investigation may not have pursued a surveillance warrant for Carter Page, who was a Trump campaign adviser and had worked earlier as an investment banker in Moscow, without a controversial dossier from the 2016 presidential campaign that was partly funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The dossier, written by a former British spy named Christopher Steele, contained unverified allegations that Trump and his campaign had ties to Russia.
The handling of allegations provided by Steele “raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain” interactions that the FBI and Justice Department had with the surveillance court, according to the memo. It cites as an example of anti-Trump bias a comment Steele made to then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, saying that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
Some Trump supporters seized on the disclosures as a reason to shut down the investigations into the president and his campaign. “Should be game over,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted.
But Democrats and some former national security officials said the memo didn’t demonstrate significant wrongdoing.
“That’s it?” tweeted former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump last year. “Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, 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 president approved Friday’s public release of the four-page memo over the FBI’s objections. Written by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee and drawn from classified information, it alleges that deception early on tainted the FBI’s continuing inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it.
Trump told reporters Friday that “Congress will do whatever they’re going to do” with the information in the memo. But he added, “I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country” and “a lot of people should be ashamed -- and much worse than that.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the memo’s release, saying an American’s civil liberties "may have been violated.” He added in a statement Friday, “I also have serious concerns with the practice of using political documents funded by a candidate’s political opponents to make law enforcement and counter-intelligence decisions.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he has “great confidence” in the department but that he will work to “fully and fairly ascertain the truth.”
‘Talk is Cheap’
In a message to the bureau after the memo was released, Director Christopher Wray said the past nine months have been “unsettling” and urged employees to keep doing great work.
“Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure,” Wray wrote. “Let me be clear: I stand fully committed to our mission. I stand by our shared determination to do our work independently and by the book. I stand with you.”
The Republican memo doesn’t directly attack Mueller, the special counsel now running the Russia meddling inquiry. But Democrats have said it was concocted to help Trump by undermining the credibility of his criminal probe.
House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, the only Republican on the House Intelligence panel to view the classified information cited in the memo, said the document raises serious concerns with how investigators obtained foreign surveillance warrants, but added that he trusts he FBI and Justice Department.
“I also remain 100 percent confident in Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” he tweeted Friday. “The contents of this memo do not - in any way - discredit his investigation.”
Democrats on the House panel assailed Nunes’s decision to release “misleading allegations” against the FBI and Justice Department, calling the memo “a shameful effort to discredit these institutions, undermine the Special Counsel’s ongoing investigation, and undercut congressional probes. ” They said that it was inaccurate to say the FBI “failed to alert the court as to Mr. Steele’s potential political motivations or the political motivations of those who hired him.”
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence panel’s top Democrat, said Thursday that he fears Trump will use the memo as a pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation and appointed Mueller as special counsel.
“The White House knows it would face a firestorm if it fired Bob Mueller,” Schiff said. “If Rod Rosenstein is fired and someone else takes his place, that is a yes man for the president. Then, they can limit Bob Mueller’s investigation in ways we will never see."
The memo doesn’t allege any wrongdoing by Rosenstein, noting that he signed at least one of the requests to extend a surveillance warrant on Page. Rosenstein, who was nominated by Trump, is mentioned only twice in the memo.
Trump, asked Friday whether he has confidence in Rosenstein, said only: “You figure that one out.” A White House official said later that dismissing Rosenstein wasn’t under consideration.
The Democrats’ concern that the memo will be used to undercut the Russia inquiry was echoed by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who said in a statement Friday that “the American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded.”
The FBI, led by Wray after Trump fired Comey, also had opposed release of the memo, saying in a statement that it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The White House decision to release the memo anyway undercuts Wray, who Trump has frequently praised as an effective leader who’s repairing an agency that had been in “tatters.”
Before Friday’s release, House members were permitted to read the memo in private, but not the underlying classified material on which it was based. Yet many Republicans seized on its assertions to demand the memo’s release, with the Twitter hashtag, #ReleaseTheMemo.
While Republicans on House Intelligence approved releasing their memo, they have delayed disclosure of a Democratic document offering counterarguments. A lawmaker familiar with the Democratic response says it argues the FBI used ample information other than Steele’s dossier to get the Page warrant, and that the agency had already been working on information from a friendly country about another Trump associate.
Schiff told reporters Friday that the process of releasing the Democratic memo has begun. “I think they are going to be forced to release it,” he said.
The memo makes clear that the the FBI was already looking into potential links between Trump campaign associates and Russia before the Page warrant application in October 2016. It notes that in July 2016, the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into George Papadopoulos, another campaign adviser.
The controversy over the memo isn’t the first involving Nunes, a fierce defender of Trump, and the Russia inquiry. He stepped aside from his committee’s investigation for a time after Democrats and some of his fellow Republicans criticized his announcement in March of last year that classified evidence revealed Obama administration officials improperly “unmasked” the identifies of people close to Trump whose names came up in legal surveillance of foreign individuals.
While Nunes made a show of rushing to the White House with the new information, he later acknowledged it was given to him by a source he had met with on the White House grounds. In the current dispute, Nunes refused to answer questions from Democrats on the Intelligence Committee on whether the panel’s Republican staff consulted with anyone at the White House in drafting the memo.
Page, who’s denied wrongdoing, seems an unlikely subject of so much attention. While Steele’s dossier portrayed him as an intermediary in a conspiracy, White House officials and former Trump campaign aides have dismissed him as someone who offered to help when the candidate’s insurgent campaign lacked foreign policy advisers. They say he made a trip to Russia on his own in 2016, but that they spurned his offers to brief the candidate afterward.
“The brave and assiduous oversight by congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy,” Page said Friday in a statement.