President Donald Trump appears to be deciding to side with House Republicans and make public a memo calling into question the FBI’s handling of investigations into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
But he still could accept the FBI’s “grave concerns” that it contains “material omissions of fact” and block its declassification.
The FBI publicly registered its concerns on Wednesday and broke its silence on the issue as the White House reviewed the controversial document for public consumption.
The Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee released a transcript of Monday’s closed-door meeting where it approved, on a party-line vote, the classified document drafted under the direction of Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif. The vote triggered a political furor that also poses repercussions for law enforcement and intelligence agencies..
Democrats who have seen the memo charge that Republicans “cherry picked” information to build a case with the sole motive of discrediting Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Russian operatives collaborated in any way with Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump has insisted countless times that there was “no collusion.”
The FBI’s unusual public objection to the memo’s release heightens the stakes, pitting the bureau’s new director, Christopher Wray, against both Nunes and Trump, the man who appointed him.
The bureau’s objection could pose the biggest roadblock to its release.
Also involved in the jockeying over the memo is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s work and any of his requests for warrants to conduct electronic surveillance.
Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have sought to shield Rosenstein amid rumors that Trump may fire him or find another way to put someone else in charge of the 19-month-old investigation.
CNN reported Wednesday that, during a meeting in December, Trump asked Rosenstein if he was on his “team,” echoing former FBI Director James Comey’s allegation that Trump asked for his loyalty in early 2017 when he ran the Russia inquiry. Comey said he sidestepped the question. Trump fired him in May.
Under laws governing intelligence secrets, the committee can release the memo unless Trump objects within five days of receiving it.
Trump was overheard saying, during his visit to the Capitol for his State of the Union address Tuesday night, that he was “100 percent” sure he would allow its release.
Nunes, in a statement Wednesday, rejected as “spurious” security concerns surrounding release of the memo from both the FBI and the Justice Department, which said to do so would be “extraordinarily reckless.”
Nunes countered that the public is entitled to learn about “surveillance abuses” by those agencies.
“We are not going to be briefed by people that are under investigation by this committee,” Nunes responded.
The FBI statement did not reveal specifics about Nunes’ memo. But Nunes seemed to allude to published reports that the memo will challenge the legitimacy of a warrant the FBI obtained to electronically surveil Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who had traveled to Russia earlier in 2016.
At issue is whether the bureau obtained the secret court warrant by largely relying on a dossier of raw, unsubstantiated intelligence gathered as opposition political research by a former British spy who was bankrolled mainly by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The FBI said the agency “takes seriously its obligations” to the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that approves such warrants for electronic eavesdropping and that the procedures are “overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI.”
“We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to ensure the continuing integrity of the ... process” for obtaining these warrants, it said.
House Republicans have been so eager to make the memo public they mounted a social media campaign — #Releasethememo — to try to rally support across the country. The Senate has been more cautious, and House Speaker Paul Ryan emphasized on Tuesday that the memo deals only with early stages of the Russia inquiry and takes no issue with the conduct of Mueller’s investigation, which he has run since May 2017.
Wray, who served as chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in the Bush administration, was invited to read the memo on Sunday.
In its statement on Wednesday, the bureau said that “limited” review caused deep distress.
“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in an interview aired Wednesday on FOX News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade Show, said that national security lawyers are “slicing and dicing and looking at it so they know what it means.”
“It will be released here pretty quick, I think,” he said, “and then the whole world can see it.”
Nunes stepped aside from the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry into Russia’s massive cyberattack on the U.S. election last spring while facing an ethics inquiry into whether he had disclosed classified information.
But since he launched a separate ad hoc investigation of the FBI and the Justice Department, four law enforcement officials have been removed from Mueller’s inquiry or their jobs due to allegations of anti-Trump or pro-Clinton bias, the latest the bureau’s No. 2 official, Andrew McCabe.
The Washington Post reported late Tuesday that McCabe retired weeks ahead of schedule on Monday after Wray voiced concerns about what would turn up in an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general of the bureau’s examination of whether Clinton, while secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term, exposed national security secrets by conducting business over a private email server.
House Republicans have targeted McCabe, a career bureau employee, because his wife received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial backing for her Virginia legislative campaign from a political committee aligned with Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, a longtime booster of Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
The Post quoted sources as saying the inspector general found that McCabe took no action for several weeks in October 2016, as the Nov. 8 presidential election grew closer, after New York FBI agents discovered a trove of Clinton emails in late September on a laptop computer used by Anthony Weiner, husband of a top Clinton aide. The FBI tries to avoid opening or closing investigations at the height of political campaigns.
Comey is also a focus of the inspector general’s inquiry. He oversaw both the email investigation and early stages of the Russia inquiry. In July 2016, he took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing that he would recommend against prosecuting Clinton for criminal wrongdoing.
In late October, a week before the election, he set off a nationwide uproar by reopening the investigation so FBI agents could review the emails on Weiner’s laptop. Two days before the election – after a round-the-clock review – Comey reaffirmed his conclusion there were no grounds to prosecute.
A spokesman for Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz declined comment on his investigation Wednesday. Horowitz has told Congress he expects to report his findings this spring.
Few senators have seen Nunes’ memo.
However, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he's seen the information and shares the House members’ skepticism about the FBI. He believes an independent special counsel or inspector general should instead look into the matter.
He noted that releasing it under the direction of a "bunch of House Republicans" only serves to politicize it.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she is concerned about releasing it and a memo countering many of its allegations by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee without a de-classification review.
Another member of the Senate panel, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said during a podcast interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that he believes the information should be "out there.”
“We can't continue to use all these excuses not to know what our investigative agencies have been doing," he said.
"It's all very concerning that our top investigative agency seems to have more questions here than answers," Blunt said.
Kate Irby of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau and McClatchy Special Correspondent Peter Stone contributed to this story