With president Donald Trump’s approval, the House has released a memo that alleges anti-Trump bias at the top of the FBI and Justice department, setting the stage for a dramatic face-off between law enforcement and the executive branch.
Many are concerned that Trump will use the memo as a pretext to fire deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and replace him with someone who could impede the FBI investigation into Russian election meddling.
The four-page memo, written by staffers for House Intelligence Committee chair and staunch Trump defender Devin Nunes, does not accuse the FBI or Department of Justice of breaking any laws. Rather, it alleges that the FBI was overly reliant on information in the notorious Steele dossier—which was paid for by Democrats (paywall)—when applying for a warrant to secretly monitor Trump aide Carter Page in October 2016. The implied argument is that information which comes from potentially biased sources is not legitimate.
The main basis for the memo seems to be then-deputy director Andrew McCabe’s reported statement to the committee that the FBI wouldn’t have applied for the warrant without information from the Steele dossier. However, the memo does not publish McCabe’s statement in full and seems worded to avoid saying that the dossier was the reason for seeking the warrant, rather than information in it.
The memo argues that the FBI’s use of Steele dossier information was wrong for the following reasons:
- The warrant application and renewals allegedly don’t disclose that Democrats partially funded Steele’s research.
- The memo says the attempts to corroborate the dossier were in their “infancy.”
- The warrant application apparently cites a Yahoo News article about Page’s trip to Moscow in July 2016. The memo says this doesn’t corroborate the Steele dossier, alleging that the piece is based on a leak from Steele. They base this on the fact that Steele has said he met with Yahoo News. Notably, the memo does not dispute any of the reporting in the article.
- The memo alleges that the warrant application failed to note “clear evidence of Steele’s bias” against Trump when making the application. (Justice department official Bruce Ohr had recorded in FBI files that Steele told him he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected.) However, Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat in the House Intelligence Minority leader, disputes that claim.
- The application “mentions information” about Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who has pled guilty to lying to the FBI, despite “no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy between Page and Papadopoulos.” The memo doesn’t expand on why that is a problem.
The fact the warrant was renewed three times puts a hole in the Republicans’ argument of wrongdoing. The secret court adjudicating the warrant would have had to find on each occasion that the surveillance was providing valuable information. Furthermore, former White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen points out that by the time the warrant was renewed, much of the information about the document’s funding had become public knowledge, and the court chose to renew the warrant anyway.
In releasing the document, Trump and House Republicans have defied fierce resistance from the FBI. Director Christopher Wray had earlier taken the highly unusual step of publicly calling for the memo to be withheld, saying his institution has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Nunes, who hasn’t actually seen the intelligence the memo is based on, says Wray’s statement is “spurious.” The FBI agents association issued a statement implying that the memo was “partisan politics.”
Democrats who have seen the underlying intelligence have lambasted the memo. The vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Mark Warner said it shows an “astonishing disregard for the truth” and that it is “dangerous” to national security. Schiff said it “mischaracterizes” information and points out that Nunes refused to say whether his staffers coordinated with the White House when drafting the memo.
Nunes has insisted that it is neither cherry-picked nor partisan, and House speaker Paul Ryan underlined that the memo is not part of a battle against law enforcement. However, Trump seemed to undermine that argument in an early morning tweet, which pits the narrative against the FBI and law enforcement: