Political News

Trump Blocks Release of Memo Rebutting Republican Claims

Posted February 9, 2018 8:45 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump blocked on Friday the release of a classified Democratic memo rebutting Republican claims that top federal law enforcement officials had abused their surveillance powers in spying on a former Trump campaign aide, raising the specter of a potential showdown with Congress.

Donald F. McGahn II, the president’s lawyer, said in a letter to the House Intelligence Committee that the memorandum “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” He said the president would again consider the release of the memo to the public if the committee revised the memo to “mitigate the risks.”

Under the obscure rule invoked by the House Intelligence Committee to initiate the document’s release, the committee could choose to make those changes, or could decide whether to seek a vote of the full House of Representatives to try to override Trump’s decision.

Democrats are certain to be outraged by the action, given that last week the president declassified the contents of a rival Republican memo drafted by committee staff and drawn from the same underlying documents over the objections of his own Justice Department and the FBI.

McGahn said Trump is “inclined to declassify” the Democratic memorandum and encouraged the committee to make the changes he said the Justice Department had identified as important for “national security and law enforcement interests.”

While many Republicans said their memo showed evidence of political bias present in the early stages of the Russia investigation, Trump went further, claiming, incorrectly, that the Republican memo “totally vindicates” him from the investigation.

Since the intelligence committee voted Monday to release the Democratic document, as well, Democrats have worried that Trump might try to black out portions of its contents for political reasons or block the document altogether.

It was not immediately clear what recourse they might seek. The Democrats, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, would need the support of Republicans, who control the committee, to force a House vote on the matter. Republicans eventually voted in favor of releasing the document, but their support for overriding the president to make public a document meant to undercut their own is another matter.

Democrats say their 10-page memo corrects key mischaracterizations and crucial omissions in the Republican case. The Republicans’ 3 1/2-page memo focused on the FBI’s use of material from a former British spy, Christopher Steele, to obtain a warrant to spy on Carter Page, the former Trump campaign official. Steele was researching possible connections between Russia and Trump associates, but the memo says the FBI did not disclose to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that he was being paid by the Democratic National Committee and lawyers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

But people familiar with the Democratic memo said it argues that the FBI was more forthcoming with the surveillance court than Republicans had claimed. It says that while the FBI did not name the Democratic National Committee or Clinton’s campaign, the bureau did disclose to the court that the information it had received from Steele was politically motivated.

Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has since conceded that the political nature of the material was included in a footnote — a fact confirmed in a letter released this week by two senior Republican senators — but said the disclosure still fell short.

Democrats also say Republicans misrepresented the words of Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, when they said he told the committee late last year that the agency would not have sought a wiretap of Page without Steele’s dossier of information.

The FBI suspected that Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker who was under investigation before, was acting as a Russian agent.

The surveillance warrant application itself remains under tight seal. The New York Times has filed a motion asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to unseal all materials related to the wiretap. There is no precedent for releasing such documents publicly.

Democrats had sought to release their memo at the same time as Republicans, but lawmakers in the committee’s majority objected. They argued that the Democratic document first had to be shared with all members of the House and evaluated to ensure it did not compromise national security.