Q&A: How a secret GOP memo became a point of conflict
Washington – In the two weeks since the #Releasethememo hashtag first sprouted on Twitter, a secret congressional report on the Russia investigation has gone from an obscure, classified document to a bitter point of conflict between not only Democrats and Republicans but also the White House and the FBI.
The fierce debate has threatened the relationship between the president and his hand-picked FBI director and diverted public attention from a special counsel’s investigation into potential ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign.
Democrats call the memo a cherry-picked set of Republican talking points, riddled with inaccuracies and assertions stripped of context. But Republicans involved in producing it say it will show surveillance run amok, and the White House – perhaps sensing an opportunity to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – has endorsed the release over the fierce objections of Justice Department and FBI leaders.
A look at how we got here and why it all matters:
What is the memo exactly, and what does it say?
It’s hard to know for sure since the document has not been made public. But it was produced by the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee who for months has faced criticism over his close ties to the Trump White House.
Republicans say the four-page memo will allege surveillance abuse by the FBI during its Russia investigation and improper use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act, known as FISA, allows federal agents – with a warrant from a judge – to monitor the communications of individuals it has probable cause to believe are agents of a foreign power.
Republicans are likely to cite the memo as proof that any such warrant was obtained on false or incomplete grounds. They’re likely to raise allegations that agents relied at least in part on Democratic-funded opposition research, conducted by a former British spy, as a basis for surveillance in the investigation’s early stages. And they may rally behind a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, who was questioned by the FBI last March about his Russia connections and who came under scrutiny several years earlier in a separate counterintelligence probe.
Nunes foreshadowed those arguments in a statement Wednesday, saying “it’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign.”
What does the FBI say?
FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was picked by Trump after the president fired the previous director, James Comey, has reviewed the document and made a personal appeal to the White House to lobby against releasing it. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did the same.
Then, in a highly unusual and unsigned public statement, the FBI said it had had only a limited opportunity to review the report and came away with “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The FBI also countered Nunes’ allegations of abuse by saying it takes “seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI.”
Part of the problem for the FBI, though, will be its difficulty in publicly correcting falsehoods it identifies in the Republican report. The FBI does not publicly release applications it submits to judges in order to obtain warrants, so the bureau will likely be hamstrung in its own public statements in opposition.
So why would the White House want this released?
Trump, who has criticized the FBI leadership throughout his tenure as biased against him, was overheard telling a Republican lawmaker on the House floor Tuesday night that he was “100 percent” in favor of the document’s release. His oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has also tweeted in support of disclosing the memo.
The president and his supporters have been looking for ways to discredit Mueller’s investigation, which Trump has called a “witch hunt.” Raising allegations of surveillance abuse – even though vigorously denied by the FBI, and even though the assertions almost certainly relate to events well-before Mueller was appointed – may provide an avenue for him to do so.
In March, Trump tweeted an unsubstantiated claim that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. He may be hoping for evidence that he believes can support that claim, which the FBI has already said is baseless.
What does the release mean for trump’s relationship with the FBI and intelligence community?
It’s impossible to say with certainty, but there’s a chance it could be irreparably damaged.
By continuing to champion the document’s disclosure, Trump would be overruling the direct pleadings of his FBI director. Wray has been strikingly low-key in his first months on the job, and the FBI statement was his first open clash with Trump.
Wray has been an advocate of giving the government wide latitude to use FISA to surveil people investigators believe to be foreign agents or terrorists, though most recently he’s been on a public relations tour to promote the reauthorization of a section of FISA aimed at foreign targets, which Congress passed in January.
The document release could also raise questions about whether ordinarily classified intelligence and information will continue to be politicized by the government.
The House intelligence committee is ordinarily supportive of FBI surveillance efforts and protective of the release of classified information. Disclosing this report would definitely flip the script.
What happens next?
The White House said Thursday that Trump was clearing the way for the publication of the classified memo, and one official said Congress would likely be informed of the decision on Friday.
The House intelligence panel voted along party lines Monday to put it out, giving Trump five days to reject the release under committee rules. But Trump also has the power to declassify the memo himself and either release it or give it to Congress to release.
One White House official said the memo would be in “Congress’ hands” after Trump declassified it and that there were unlikely to be any redactions.
It’s unclear when the public would then see it, but it will almost certainly cause more tensions within the executive branch and among the political parties.
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