The White House announced Friday it will temporarily block the public release of a secret Democratic memo that attempts to rebut Republican allegations of government abuse of spying laws in the Russia investigation. The decision comes after President Donald Trump allowed Republicans to release their memo last week.
In a letter to members of the House Intelligence Committee Friday night, White House Counsel Don McGahn wrote that after review, the Department of Justice found that making certain parts of the memo public “would create especially significant concerns for national security and law enforcement interests.”
Trump is “inclined to declassify” the Democratic memo, McGahn wrote, but “is unable to do so at this time” because it “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.”
Saturday morning on Twitter, Trump said that he had not allowed Democrats to release their memo because it would "have to be heavily redacted."
"The Democrats sent a very political and long response memo which they knew, because of sources and methods (and more), would have to be heavily redacted, whereupon they would blame the White House for lack of transparency," Trump tweeted. "Told them to re-do and send back in proper form!"
The 10-page Democratic memo was expected to serve as a direct rebuttal to the Republican memo released last week and to expand upon Democrats’ criticisms of the GOP document as a misleading attempt to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. “We think this will help inform the public of the many distortions and inaccuracies in the majority memo,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, said Monday night after the committee voted to send it to the White House.
It is now unclear whether it will be made public. “[G]iven the public interest in transparency in these unprecedented circumstances, the President has directed that Justice Department personnel be available to give technical assistance to the Committee, should the Committee wish to revise the February 5th Memorandum to mitigate the risks identified by the Department,” McGahn wrote. “The President encourages the Committee to undertake these efforts.”
McGahn’s letter was accompanied by another letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray saying that they had identified “information the release of which would present such concerns in light of longstanding principles regarding the protection of intelligence sources and methods, ongoing investigations, and other similarly sensitive information.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump's decision to hold off on releasing the Democratic memo showed a "double standard when it comes to transparency," referencing similar concerns the FBI and DOJ had about the release of the GOP memo last week. “The rationale for releasing the Nunes memo, transparency, vanishes when it could show information that’s harmful to [Trump]," Schumer said. "Millions of Americans are asking one simple question: what is he hiding?”
Schiff echoed Schumer's criticism of Trump's decision in a tweet on Friday.
"We will be reviewing the recommended redactions from DOJ and FBI, which these agencies shared with the White House, and look forward to conferring with the agencies to determine how we can properly inform the American people about the misleading attack on law enforcement by the GOP and address any concerns over sources and methods," Schiff's tweeted statement read.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee chairman, said in a statement Friday night that he "had warned that the Democratic memo contains many sources and methods."
"Intelligence Committee Republicans encourage the minority to accept the DOJ’s recommendations and make the appropriate technical changes and redactions so that no sources and methods are disclosed and their memo can be declassified as soon as possible,” Nunes said.
On Monday night, the House Intelligence Committee voted unanimously to send the classified Democratic memo to the White House, where Trump and his staff would review it and decide whether to object to its declassification, or return it to the committee for expected public release. Under the rarely used House rule to declassify information, the White House had five days to review the document and inform the committee of a decision.
Republicans on the committee used their majority to do the same with their memo the week prior, sending the then-classified document to Trump, who last Friday approved its declassification. The White House said it authorized the Republican memo’s release due in part to “significant public interest.”
The Republican memo, the secret nature of which had roiled American politics for weeks, purported to show that the FBI and the Department of Justice abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the last election. Specifically, the memo — drafted by Republican staff on the committee at the direction of Chairman Devin Nunes — claimed that the FBI and Justice Department failed to inform the court in applications to surveil former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page that they were based, in part, on research funded by Democrats.
“A lot of people should be ashamed,” Trump told reporters after he authorized the memo’s release.
The Republican memo said the application to spy on Page, who was in contact with a Russian spy as early as 2013, contained information from former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who authored a dossier alleging years of Trump-Kremlin links. The dossier was first published by BuzzFeed News last January after security officials had briefed then-president Barack Obama and Trump about it.
Republicans alleged in their memo that the FBI and DOJ failed to inform the secret court that approves FISA orders that Steele’s research was funded in part by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned Steele’s research.
Steele himself might not have even been fully aware of who exactly was funding his research, according to testimony given to the committee by Glenn Simpson, the firm’s co-founder, in November.
The Democratic memo disputes that the FBI failed to disclose the dossier’s origins, according to a source familiar with the document. The Democratic memo says the FBI and Justice Department did, in fact, inform the court that the dossier came from a politically motivated source — though the application did not specify that the Clinton campaign had funded the research. Steele himself likely would not have been identified by name in the application, as is typically the custom in FISA warrant applications, the source added.
Schiff told reporters last week that though he couldn’t provide details from his memo, “it’s not accurate to say that the FBI didn't make the FISA court aware that there was a likely political motivation behind those who were funding Christopher Steele’s work.”
Nunes has since conceded that the FISA application contained a footnote pointing to Steele’s political backing.
The Democratic memo was more broadly expected to serve as a rebuttal to the Republican memo and to expand upon Democrats’ criticisms of the first memo as a misleading attempt to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. “We think this will help inform the public of the many distortions and inaccuracies in the majority memo,” Schiff said Monday night after the committee vote to send it to the White House.
The FBI, in a rare public statement last week, echoed some of the Democrats’ criticisms of the GOP memo, saying the agency had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Nunes, who led the campaign to release the memo, also faced a harsh rebuke from the Justice Department for initially failing to allow the department to properly vet the classified document, which the DOJ said could reveal sensitive sources and methods for intelligence gathering. FBI Director Christopher Wray eventually viewed the document, as did a handful of senior staff from FBI headquarters, and the White House performed its own review of the memo before authorizing its release.
Schiff said Monday that unlike Nunes, Democrats had provided the Justice Department and the FBI with the Democratic memo “several days” prior to the vote so they could review it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement last week after the Republican memo was released that he would be in favor of making public the Democratic memo once it was “properly scrubbed of all intelligence sources and methods.”
“It is critical that we focus on specific actions and specific actors and not use this memo to impugn the integrity of the justice system and FBI, which continue to serve the American people with honor," Ryan added.
Emma Loop is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. PGP fingerprint: 4A39 DD99 953C 6CAF D68C 85CD C380 AB23 859B 0611.
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