This article was updated on Friday, February 2 at 3:20 pm.
The House Intelligence Committee released a controversial four-page memo on Friday written by its chair, Devin Nunes, outlining alleged surveillance abuses carried out by the Justice Department, marking the end of a weeks-long battle over the document between House Republicans, Democrats, and the Department of Justice.
President Trump sent the memo back to the House to release on Friday after directing his lawyers and national-security staff to assess the document. Trump cleared its release over the objections of his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and FBI Director Chris Wray.
The White House reportedly rejected FBI and DOJ requests to redact some of the information in the memo, which alleges that the FBI used intelligence passed to them by the former British spy Christopher Steele to bolster the bureau’s application for a surveillance warrant targeting an early Trump campaign adviser.
That adviser, Carter Page, has been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013, when he first came under suspicion of being recruited to act as a Russian agent.
The memo accuses the FBI of omitting “the role of the DNC” and the Clinton campaign in paying Steele for his research on the Trump campaign, and states that Rosenstein, who was appointed by Trump last spring, approved an application to extend the warrant in March 2017.
Former FBI Director James Comey signed the initial application for the warrant, as well as for two renewals, before he was fired in May of last year, and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who was pushed out of his role earlier this week, signed off on one renewal application, according to the memo.
House Intelligence Democrats said in a statement on Friday following the memo’s release that the DOJ had emphasized to the committee’s chairman and memo author Devin Nunes that “the decision to employ an obscure and never before used House rule to release classified information without DOJ and FBI vetting was ‘extraordinarily reckless.’”
Nunes has not actually seen the FISA application underlying the memo’s claims. That highly classified intelligence was only made available to Representative Adam Schiff, the intelligence committee’s ranking member, and House Oversight chairman Trey Gowdy.
“It is telling that Chairman Nunes put out this memo without bothering to read the underlying materials, and that he ordered changes to the document without informing his own committee members,” the minority said in its statement.
A source familiar with the FISA application process who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive procedure told me that the bureau had to have had a “rock-solid” reason, perhaps in the form of new evidence, to request that the warrant be extended. The FBI first obtained the warrant targeting Page in October 2016 and renewed it three times.
The memo claims that the FBI “terminated” its relationship with Steele after learning that Steele made an “unauthorized disclosure” about his Trump campaign research to the press. Two sources familiar with Steele’s actions vigorously dispute the claim that the former British intelligence officer, who has worked with the FBI and State Department on numerous projects over the last several years, ever lied to the bureau about his media contacts.
A source familiar with the episode, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, told me that Steele’s research belonged to his clients, Fusion GPS and the Democratic National Committee. Steele gave the information to the FBI out of a sense of duty, the source said, but a relationship with the FBI had not been formalized even though the possibility of a commercial contract had been discussed to continue the research into Trump’s Russia ties. Such a contract never materialized, which meant that Steele was under no obligation to avoid reporters. The FBI acknowledged that, the source said.
Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of the opposition research firm that hired Steele to conduct the research, told Congress in testimony last year that Steele had become disillusioned with the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia case after choosing to make public statements about Hillary Clinton’s email server—rather than about potential collusion between Trump and Moscow—in the waning days of the campaign.
House Intelligence Democrats said in their statement that the Russia investigation “did not begin with, or arise from Christopher Steele or the dossier,” adding that “the investigation would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture.”
The Nunes memo itself appears to corroborate this, stating that information the FBI acquired about George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, in late July 2016 “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation” by former FBI agent Peter Strzok.
“The DOJ appropriately provided the court with a comprehensive explanation of Russia’s election interference, including evidence that Russian agents courted another Trump campaign foreign adviser, George Papadopoulos,” the minority said.
“As we know from Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, Russian agents disclosed to Papadopoulos their possession of stolen Clinton emails and interest in a relationship with the campaign.”
The president appeared defiant on Friday morning, accusing Justice Department and FBI leaders of politicizing “the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.”
“The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans - something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago,” he wrote. “Rank & File are great people!”
A joint letter from the House and Senate Democratic leadership on Friday called the memo’s release “a transparent attempt to discredit the hard-working men and women of law enforcement who are investigating Russia’s interference with our Presidential election and that nation’s ties to your campaign.” They added that they would regard firing Rosenstein as “an attempt to obstruct justice.”
Trump has been telling his friends and allies that the memo would undermine the Mueller investigation, CNN reported.
The dispute over the memo escalated sharply on Wednesday, when the FBI released a rare public statement condemning the Republicans’ efforts to make the memo public.
“The FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the bureau said. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Tensions grew further when Schiff published a letter on Wednesday night claiming that the memo the House voted on Monday to release was not the same document that Nunes had given to the White House.
Schiff claimed in the letter that Nunes had made material changes to the document that Democrats had not been given a chance to review. Pushing back, Nunes said the only changes that had been made were cosmetic and included two edits that were requested by the FBI and by the Democrats.
Democrats denied that—Representative Eric Swalwell, who sits on the intelligence committee, told me it was ridiculous to think that the Democrats had requested changes to a document they didn’t even want released in the first place. The DOJ declined to comment.
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