The House Republican leaders whose accusations of FBI surveillance abuses launched a partisan war of classified memos are pledging to continue their investigation, with one important difference: no more memos.
House Intelligence Committee Republicans kicked off the dance of dueling memos last month, when the panel voted to release a GOP-drafted document charging that federal law enforcement agencies secured a surveillance warrant for former Trump campaign aide Carter Page with faulty information from a now-famous dossier alleging links between Donald Trump and the Kremlin. The panel’s chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has since committed to continue probing how the dossier affected decisions in other parts of the government, including the State Department, in additional “phases” of the inquiry.
But after three frenzied weeks during which nearly all other policy discussions, from immigration to budget battles to the president’s first State of the Union address, were drowned out by partisan sniping over memos, House Republican leaders are dispensing with the memo format as a way of delivering their future findings to the public, as several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle claim an acute case of memo fatigue, and in some cases even remorse.
“The problem with this whole committee and the investigation itself,” said senior House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), is that “in a normal world” the panel would have simply interviewed the Justice Department officials who approved the surveillance applications, like Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
“Instead we do a memo,” Rooney complained. “And now the Democrats are doing their memo, and we’re in memo hell.”
The partisan fight over the 14 pages in question — the GOP’s already-public memo is four pages long, the Democrats’ still-unreleased rebuttal is 10 — is not yet finished, and may be stoked further if the president redacts the Democrats’ document in a manner that differs from the recommendations of the FBI and Justice Department. Lawmakers are expecting to field the president’s decision as soon as Friday, though White House spokesman Raj Shah would not tell reporters Thursday when Trump would make up his mind.
If the president does not block or otherwise limit the Democrats’ memo by Saturday night, the Intelligence Committee will be free to release it to the public without redactions.
In the meantime, many Republicans are speculating that Nunes’s embrace of a politically one-sided memo to release classified information — a previously unexploited tactic — may have been the death knell for bipartisanship on a committee that has been politically fractured since its probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections began.
“I said from the beginning that neither of these memos should have been written,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate Republican who is retiring at the end of his term. “I’m all for transparency, but this whole exercise is transparently partisan.”
Partisan jabs have been escalating as the memo dispute deepens. In the last week, Nunes has accused Democrats on the committee of being liars, starting with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress have called on House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to oust Nunes as chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
At the same time, fixation on the memo has all but derailed progress in the panel’s ongoing probe of Russian election meddling and Trump’s alleged Kremlin ties, as majority and minority staffers detailed to that investigation focused on preparing, vetting and releasing their competing documents.
The committee may be in for more political unraveling soon. Each side has accused the other party of leaking information, and one outside group has filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics specifically accusing Nunes of leaking information related to the dossier. According to multiple sources, Nunes is also planning to build a wall in the committee’s secure spaces soon to separate the Republican and Democratic staffers.
Schiff called news of those plans “a terrible mistake,” in a statement Thursday. “While we have more than our share of difficulties, the important oversight work of the committee continues with our staff working together irrespective of party. This would be a very destructive decision.” A spokesman for Nunes did not return a request to comment about the planned wall construction.
Several Republican members of the committee share Democrats’ unease with the state of the committee’s political divisions, though they primarily point a finger across the aisle, at Schiff, for the state of affairs. Still, long-serving senior panel member Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) said the committee should probably review its memo approach “once the dust settles” — not expressly defending the memo approach but arguing that it seemed like the best idea “at the time.”
From across the Capitol, several Republicans are observing the worsening state of affairs in the House Intelligence Committee and shaking their heads.
“I don’t like partisan memos,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has also been pressuring the FBI and Justice Department to release classified information related to the dossier. Last month, he and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) sent the DOJ a criminal referral for the dossier’s author, former British spy Christopher Steele, based on the same evidence the House GOP considered. Much of their referral matches the points made in the House GOP’s memo.
Grassley refused to condemn the House memos Thursday, saying “the people of this country have a right to know the public’s business.” But Graham and Grassley have refrained from drafting anything resembling a memo in the Senate, instead waiting for law enforcement officials to approve redacted versions of their referral before releasing them.
“The best way to have what happened explained is by some independent group like the IG of the FBI or Mr. Mueller,” Graham said. “I just don’t think [the memo] is the right way to do it, but it’s done now.”
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has also dismissed the House GOP’s approach, telling reporters “I don’t think there was any need for a memo to be released,” according to CNN.
At this point, House Republican leaders have not laid out specific plans for how they will structure future phases of their investigation into the dossier, or whether they will seek support in their efforts from Republicans outside their conference.
When asked if memos might be a viable way of handling politically contentious information pertaining to the dossier in the future, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, grimaced.
“I wish that everybody would calm down and just focus on their job,” he said.