Political News

2 Weeks After Trump Blocked It, Democrats Release Rebuttal of GOP Memo

Posted February 24, 2018 11:01 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee released a redacted Democratic memorandum Saturday countering Republican claims that top FBI and Justice Department officials had abused their powers in spying on a former Trump campaign aide.

The document was intended by Democrats to offer a point-by-point refutation of what it called the “transparent” attempt by President Donald Trump’s allies on the committee to undermine the congressional and special counsel investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

But the dueling accounts reflected an extraordinary struggle on the committee to try to shape public perceptions of the credibility of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies. For weeks, instead of focusing its full energy on investigating an attack on the U.S. democratic system, the committee has been pulled into a furious effort by Trump and his allies to sow doubts about the integrity of the special counsel inquiry and the agencies conducting it.

The Democratic memo amounted to a forceful rebuttal to the president’s portrayal of the Russia inquiry as a “witch hunt” being perpetrated by politically biased leaders of the FBI and the Justice Department.

The newfound animosity toward the FBI among ostensibly law-and-order Republicans was reflected this past week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where speakers like Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, attacked what they called its “rogue leadership.”

At the conference Saturday, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman, said the newly released memo showed that Democrats were engaged in a cover-up and were “colluding with parts of the government” to carry it out.

The Democratic memo underwent days of review by top law enforcement officials after the president blocked its outright release two weeks ago, with the White House counsel warning that the document “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” On Saturday afternoon, after weeks of haggling over redactions, the department returned the document to the committee so it could make it public.

The release was expected to be the final volley, at least for now, in a bitter partisan fight over surveillance that has driven deep fissures through the once-bipartisan Intelligence Committee.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said Saturday that the Democratic memo should “put to rest” Republican assertions of wrongdoing against the former Trump aide, Carter Page, in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process.

“Our extensive review of the initial FISA application and three subsequent renewals failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement and instead revealed that both the FBI and DOJ made extensive showings to justify all four requests,” he said in a statement.

Republicans, including Trump, were undeterred. The White House dismissed the Democratic document as an attempt “to undercut the president politically.”

“The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!”

The president said on Saturday night that the memo confirmed the Republican version of events and reflected poorly on Democrats, suggesting that both were grounds for launching an investigation of his political opponents.

“That was nothing but a confirmation, and a lot of bad things happened on the other side — not on this side, but on the other side — and somebody should look at it, because what they did was really fraudulent,” Trump said in a telephone interview with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro.

“By somebody,” the president added, “I mean you-know-who.” He appeared to be referring to Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, whom he has savaged in recent days for failing to open an investigation of unspecified “crimes” by Democrats.

The Intelligence Committee dispute centers on an application by the FBI in October 2016 to secure a secret warrant to spy on Page, suspected by U.S. law enforcement of being a Russian agent, as well as the subsequent renewals.

Republicans, in their 3 1/2-page memo, had claimed that top law enforcement officials abused their most sensitive powers in relying on politically motivated research provided by a former British spy, Christopher Steele.

The Republicans complained that the FBI did not tell a secret intelligence court that Steele’s work had been financed by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, suggesting that a judge needed to know that information to evaluate the credibility of the information.

But the Democratic document shows that the FBI did tell the surveillance court that Steele’s research was commissioned by someone who wanted to discredit Trump’s campaign and that the information provided by Steele, a trusted source in the past, was only part of the evidence supporting a wiretap.

According to the memo, officials laid out a “multipronged rationale” for spying on Page, including his past interactions with Russian spies, and informed the court of a counterintelligence investigation then underway into the Kremlin’s covert influence campaign.

Page, a former investment banker based in Moscow, had been on the FBI’s radar for years, long before his work with Trump. The Democratic memo reveals that the FBI interviewed Page as late as March 2016 about his contacts with Russian intelligence agents, the same month Trump added him to his foreign policy advisory team.

The information from Steele was about “specific activities in 2016” by Page, including suspected meetings with close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a July trip to Moscow, the Democrats said.

The document says the bureau did disclose to the court that it had made use of information that was gathered through politically motivated means and quotes from the application itself.

“The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit” Trump’s campaign, the FBI wrote in the application.

The Democrats said it would have been inappropriate and inconsistent with standard practice for officials to have disclosed to the court the names of American individuals and organizations that had paid Steele.

The FBI frequently relies on sources who have agendas, whether it is a gang turncoat or a mafia informer. What is typically seen as important by courts is that the agenda is disclosed to a judge.

In the case of Page, the surveillance applications were reviewed by four judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, the document says. Each approved the request.

The memo also asserts that in applications to renew the wiretap, the FBI provided the court with information from independent sources corroborating Steele’s findings. Much of the specific corroborating evidence was blacked out.

And, according to the Democrats, the wiretap produced “valuable intelligence” for the FBI that was used to justify its renewal three times. The document offers specific examples, which were redacted by the Justice Department. The warrant application itself remains under seal, and only a handful of lawmakers from either party have seen it. The New York Times has filed a motion asking the surveillance court to take the unusual step of unsealing it.

The Democratic document also rebuts claims by Republicans, including Trump, that the FBI relied on Steele’s findings to open its counterintelligence inquiry in late July 2016. Information from Steele, the memo says, did not reach the FBI counterintelligence team investigating Russian meddling until mid-September, well after the inquiry had been opened and after the FBI had already begun looking at other campaign associates.

The document challenges several other prominent Republican claims. For instance, the Republican memo asserted that the FBI had presented to the court a Yahoo News article from September 2016 as corroboration of Steele’s claims, despite the fact that it later emerged that Steele had been a source for it.

The Democrats said that the article, and another it did not identify, was merely used to inform the court that Page had publicly denied having the meetings in Moscow.

Republicans on the Intelligence Committee released a point-by-point response to the Democratic document, which they said only confirmed that the FBI had relied on politically motivated material. In a separate document, they wrote that the Democrats had provided a “lengthy but wholly unpersuasive attempt to distract from the committee’s key findings” on surveillance abuse.

Page, in a statement, called the memo “a smear campaign” by Democrats that only made it more important that the underlying applications be released publicly.

Democrats have insisted that Trump’s deference to national security concerns in delaying the memo’s release was hypocritical and politically motivated. Just a week before blocking their memo’s release, the president had ignored similar objections from the Justice Department and the FBI to declassify the contents of the rival Republican memo, which was based on the same underlying documents.