Against the advice of the Justice Department and FBI, President Trump declassified and the House Intelligence Committee released a controversial four-page memo distilled from voluminous classified information and penned by the staff of committee Chairman Devin Nunes alleging that investigators abused their surveillance authority when they sought a FISA warrant to spy on former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page.
Nunes, who reportedly did not review the underlying classified information because he'd recused himself from the Russian probe in early spring pending an ethics investigation, defended the memo as revealing "serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes.
"It is my hope that the committee's actions will shine a light on this alarming series of events so we can make reforms that allow the American people to have full faith and confidence in their governing institutions," Nunes said in a statement.
Trump, who has railed against simultaneous Russia investigations, called the revelations in the document “a disgrace.”
The memo, the release of which was hotly debated, had drawn criticism from Democrats and other detractors as being little more than cherry-picked talking points and sparked concern that it would reveal confidential intelligence sources as well as intelligence-gathering methods.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House committee, who opposed the release of the memo and whose own rebuttal memo was rejected by the committee for release, said "The Republican document mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information that few members of Congress have seen, and which Chairman Nunes himself chose not to review.”
The Congressman, who has locked horns with Nunes and who believes releasing the memo is an attempt by Nunes and others to provide cover for the president and his associates as the Russia probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller seemingly heats up. The memo “fails to provide vital context and information contained in DOJ's FISA application and renewals, and ignores why and how the FBI initiated, and the special counsel has continued, its counterintelligence investigation into Russia's election interference and links to the Trump campaign," Schiff said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, contended in a statement that "unlike almost every House member who voted in favor of this memo's release, I have actually read the underlying documents on which the memo was based. They simply do not support its conclusions.”
The document contends that an anti-Trump bias fueled Steele's research, which was originally commissioned by a right-wing organization to gather research on Trump during the primaries and that the FBI and Justice, with their own biases against the president, knew of Steele's bias, deciding to use the research anyway to gain the FISA warrant.
It also says that Steele “improperly concealed and lied” to investigators about his dealings with the press.
Shortly after the memo broke, MSNBC confirmed that four separate FISA judges had signed off on surveillance warrants for Carter Page.
The document also contradicts earlier contentions by some members that Steele's research spurred the investigation of the Trump campaign and potential collusion with the Russians. While it claims that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe allegedly said a surveillance warrant for Page wouldn't have been requested without Steele's dossier, compiled as oppositional research for Hillary Clinton's campaign and paid for by her campaign. However, the memo's last page acknowledges that the counter-intelligence probe grew out of comments made by former Trump aide George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat in the U.K.
During a night at London's Kensington Wine Rooms in May 2016, Papadopoulos, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, revealed to Australian Alexander Downer that Russia had damaging information on Trump opponent Hillary Clinton.
“It's important to know what the memo doesn't say. It doesn't say the relevant parts of the dossier are false. It doesn't say the Russia investigation would not have started but for the dossier,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said in a statement. “It doesn't say the FISA judge did not have probable cause to issue a surveillance order on Carter Page. It doesn't say anyone at the FBI or DOJ violated the FISA law.”
The Nunes memo confirms that the FISA surveillance warrant on Page was approved in October 2016 well after the investigation, then under the leadership of former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired, President Trump said, for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email case. In a later interview with NBC, Trump indicated that the Russian probe figured into his firing of Comey.
Democrats fear that Trump will use the memo to oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, and possibly jeopardize that investigation.
But rather than undermine Mueller's probe, the “memo has done exactly the opposite,” Lieu said. “The release of this memo shows a desperate President and his enablers trying to undermine and obstruct an investigation because it is getting closer to arriving at the truth of what happened in 2016."
Pundits also expressed concern that Nunes's actions would unfairly taint the FBI and would upend congressional oversight of the intelligence operations. Intelligence committees in the House and Senate were created as bipartisan bodies post-Watergate to monitor intelligence functions but in the past year, the House committee has been ripped by partisan clashes.
"This unprecedented public disclosure of classified material during an ongoing criminal investigation is dangerous to our national security,” said Warner. “This will make it far more difficult for the Intelligence Committees to conduct meaningful, bipartisan oversight of intelligence activities in the future. This action was also taken without regard to the damage it could do to our ability to protect Americans from threats around the globe.” He pledged his committee “will continue our bipartisan investigation into what happened in the 2016 election and the dedicated men and women of the FBI continue to have my full support."
Comey took to Twitter to challenge the memo and defend the Justice Department and the FBI. "That's it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen,” he tweeted. “For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs."
Lieu believes that the memo will backfire. “When the American people see the facts that Trump and Nunes are trying to hide, the people will be angry at the President and the GOP, and proud of the professionals at the FBI and DOJ,” said Lieu. "The Nunes memo omits significant material facts in an attempt to blatantly mislead the public. That is why the Democratic memo, which provides the omitted facts, must be released.”