House Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Tuesday defended the way that Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes handled a politically divisive vote to publicize a classified memo detailing alleged surveillance abuses by federal law enforcement agencies, but he warned against using it to discredit the special counsel's probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Ryan (R-Wis.) said Nunes (R-Calif.) was following a well-established process when the committee voted Monday to release a GOP-drafted memo to the public, provided President Trump does not block its efforts within five days. The panel also voted to make a memo drafted by Democrats rebutting the GOP's document available to House members to read in a secure facility, as the panel had done with the GOP memo 11 days earlier along party lines.
Ryan suggested to reporters Tuesday that "there may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals," citing that as one of several reasons Republicans want "all of this information" contained in the memo "to come out."
But he stressed that "the chairman went to the FBI to make sure we were protecting sources and methods," calling it "ironic" that Democrats were complaining, as "Devin actually made the motion" Monday to make the Democrats' memo available to other House members.
Democrats have charged that Nunes withheld the memo from the FBI and the Justice Department until the last minute, resisting the advice of top officials who as recently as last week were warning against making it public.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has since had an opportunity to review the memo, although it has not been vetted by the FBI's in-house lawyers, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump has indicated he supports the plans to release the memo, according to House members and a senior administration official.
The memo deals primarily with the role that intelligence passed along by British ex-spy Christopher Steele played in the FBI's efforts to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, according to people familiar with the four-page document. Steele's work, which was partially funded by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, led to a dossier of allegations of ties between Trump and the Kremlin. Trump has denied the allegations, and Republicans have suggested that Steele provided bad information to the FBI — although people familiar with the memo say it is does not conclusively say whether Steele intentionally passed along suspect information or simply made a mistake.
Several Republicans and conservative pundits have seized on the memo as a reason to question the underpinnings and legitimacy of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's ongoing probe of alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. But on Tuesday, Ryan firmly warned people against drawing such links.
"This is a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller's investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to continue," Ryan said, adding that the "institution" of the FBI and Justice Department is "very important for American life."
Revelations last week that Trump sought to order Mueller's firing last June have raised new concerns that the president may try to oust the special counsel or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the probe. Democrats have been clamoring since to pass legislation to protect Mueller by giving a panel of three federal judges the power to review any presidential order to fire a special counsel.
Republican leaders have rejected Democrats' concerns, as well as their calls for legislative steps to protect Mueller.
"My understanding is there's no effort underway to undermine or to remove the special counsel. Therefore, I don't see any need to bring up legislation to protect someone who appears to need no protection," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.
Ryan said that calls for Rosenstein to step down were also misplaced.
"I think Rod Rosenstein's doing a fine job. I have no reason to see why he should do that," Ryan said, noting that Rosenstein "came in after this last election." Ryan added that the FBI and the Justice Department "need to clean their own house."
But Democrats charge that the GOP's memo campaign is compromising the integrity of key law enforcement agencies in political deference to Trump at a time when they need to be especially vigilant against potential threats from Russia. Senior Democrats openly questioned why the GOP chose to focus their attention on the memo Monday instead of Trump's decision not to sanction Russian officials on the administration's newly-released oligarchs list, which mirrors a list Forbes magazine compiled of the wealthiest Russians.
"These are mandatory sanctions," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. "He is ignoring them and he is not implementing them . . . making things worse."
Schumer also questioned whether a mysterious visit last week from Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russian intelligence, had anything to do with the Trump administration's sanctions decision.
"Which U.S. officials did he meet with?" Schumer asked. "What did they discuss? Surely he didn't come alone, so which other sanctioned Russian intelligence agency figures has the Trump administration let into our country?"
The Russian Embassy confirmed Naryshkin's visit via Twitter on Tuesday morning. Naryshkin has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014.
Some Republicans expressed concern about the administration's decision not to issue new sanctions Monday.
"I'd like to know why they're not doing more," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "There may be a good reason, but I don't want to send anything that could be a signal of weakness."
But Graham has rejected Democrats' argument that releasing the memo will compromise the country's law enforcement agencies or otherwise undermine the special counsel's Russia probe. He has expressed support for the House GOP's campaign to release the memo, and is working to determine what underlying documents — which were also provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee — ought to be declassified.
In the House, lawmakers are waiting for the president to make the next move on whether the memo will be released to the public. In the meantime, members have been instructed to stay mum about its contents, according to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
"We need to make sure we don't share anything," Meadows recalled leaders saying during a GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning.
Sean Sullivan and Erica Werner contributed to this report.