President Trump will not immediately agree to release a Democratic memo rebutting GOP claims that the FBI abused its surveillance authority as it probed Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but he has directed the Justice Department to work with lawmakers so some form of the document could be made public, the White House counsel said Friday night.
In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee, White House counsel Donald McGahn wrote that the Justice Department had identified portions of the Democrats’ memo that it believed “would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests” if disclosed. McGahn included in his note a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray supporting that claim.
The decision stands in contrast to one Trump made last week on a Republican memo alleging the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. After the House Intelligence Committee voted on a Monday to make that document public, Trump authorized its release swiftly on a Friday afternoon.
The process had been largely the same for the Democratic rebuttal. The committee voted on Monday to release the document, and it was sent to Trump’s desk for approval. But this time, the president waited until the evening, informing Capitol Hill of his decision via his White House counsel around 7:30 p.m.
The committee had earlier voted along party lines against releasing both the Democratic and Republican memos at the same time.
McGahn wrote in his letter that Trump was “inclined to declassify” the Democrats’ memo, but given its sensitive passages, he was “unable to do so.” McGahn wrote that the president had instructed the Justice Department to work with Congress to mitigate those risks.
“I’m not surprised,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) in a statement. “Those on the side of truth don’t fear transparency.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement: “The President’s double standard when it comes to transparency is appalling. The rationale for releasing the Nunes memo, transparency, vanishes when it could show information that’s harmful to him. Millions of Americans are asking one simple question: what is he hiding?” He was referring to the GOP memo, which was produced by the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
A department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Trump accused Democrats in a Saturday morning tweet of knowingly submitting a memo that would be difficult to release without changes. He said they knew their memo “would have to be heavily redacted, whereupon they would blame the White House for lack of transparency” and that he asked them to “re-do and send back in proper form!”
Top House Republicans also said that Democrats had forced the White House’s hand by putting too much classified information in their memo that would have compromised intelligence gathering sources and methods.
“I had warned that the Democratic memo contains many sources and methods,” Nunes said. “It’s no surprise that these agencies recommended against publishing the memo without redactions. Intelligence Committee Republicans encourage the minority to accept the DOJ’s recommendations and make the appropriate technical changes and redactions so that no sources and methods are disclosed and their memo can be declassified as soon as possible.”
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said that Ryan still “wants both memos released.”
“The Intelligence Committee should work with the FBI and DOJ to scrub the Democrats’ memo of any sources and methods of intelligence gathering, as the majority memo was, so that it can be released,” she added.
Justice officials had raised national security concerns about the Republican memo before having seen it, but after Wray reviewed a copy, the FBI indicated publicly that it was concerned about the document’s accuracy.
The four-page document alleged law enforcement officials misled the FISA Court by not disclosing in an application for a warrant to surveil Page that they were relying in part on information funded by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Trump’s decision Friday on the Democrats’ memo came as some Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee pushed for a prohibition on the use of politically funded information in applications for surveillance warrants. The proposal, which earned swift pushback from Democrats, was made during a closed-door meeting of the House Intelligence Committee held on Monday, according to a newly released transcript of the session.
The dispute highlights the extent to which a now-famous dossier alleging Trump has personal and financial ties to Russian officials has divided the committee, as the parties quarrel over how congressional panels and federal law enforcement agencies have handled investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Democrats have said they have no intention of releasing any part of the document that the FBI and Justice Department does not approve. They also say the classified information in their memo provides necessary context “to rebut the errors, omissions, and distortions in the Republican-drafted memo,” according to the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.).
Schiff indicated an eagerness to work with the agencies quickly to release the memo. He also responded to Trump’s decision on Twitter, writing: “After ignoring urging of FBI & DOJ not to release misleading Nunes memo because it omits material facts, @POTUS now expresses concerns over sharing precisely those facts with public and seeks to send it back to the same Majority that produced the flawed Nunes memo to begin with.”
Republican members of the panel have stressed the FBI’s surveillance of Page was improper because the court was never told the work of the dossier’s author, former British spy Christopher Steele, was funded by Democrats.
“I certainly hope . . . that we can come to the conclusion that we would all, Republicans and Democrats, believe that politically paid for materials should never be used as evidence in a FISA court,” said panel member Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. “I believe it was an abuse when it was done under the Obama administration. I believe it would be an abuse under the Trump administration . . . This is wrong. It should not happen again.”
Democrats have pushed back against the Republican assertion the court was not informed, stressing it was told some of the information in the application was paid for by a political entity, even if the DNC and Clinton campaign were not specifically named, and there could have been further discussions in which more information was provided.
Scrutiny of the dossier has pitted the parties against each other across the Capitol as well. On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a robust defense of Steele, who alerted the FBI to his findings before the election.
Feinstein’s memo was intended to rebut a criminal referral recently delivered to the Department of Justice by two of her Republican colleagues, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and panel member Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). House Republicans have pointed to the specifics of Grassley and Graham’s memo as corroboration of the complaints they made in their memo. Feinstein also accuses Grassley and Graham of omitting key facts about Steele’s interactions with the FBI.
Grassley and Graham have urged law enforcement to investigate whether Steele lied to the FBI before the 2016 election regarding his contacts with the media. The two Republicans pointed out a warrant application submitted by the Justice Department noted the FBI did not believe Steele had directly provided information to Yahoo News before the news organization published an article in September 2016 that included information similar to Steele’s allegations. However, in a court document filed in London, Steele has acknowledged meeting with a Yahoo News reporter around the same time.
In her rebuttal, Feinstein noted her Republican colleague’s investigation request did not cite a specific instance in which Steele was asked by the FBI about his media contacts nor a time when he lied about them. She described Steele as a “respected and reliable expert on Russia,” who had provided credible information to the FBI in the past about corruption in soccer’s governing body, FIFA, as well other issues, and who came to the FBI voluntarily out of his concern for U.S. security.
A spokesman for Grassley said Feinstein’s analysis “smacks of desperation” and was “grasping at straws to mischaracterize the stated intent and substance” of his letter. Responding to Feinstein’s letter point by point, Grassley’s office said that his referral had not asserted Steele lied but instead pointed out discrepancies in FBI records regarding Steele’s media contacts and asked for an investigation.
Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.