WASHINGTON — In a remarkably public clash of wills with the White House, the FBI declared Wednesday it has “grave concerns” about the accuracy of a classified memo on the Russia election investigation that President Donald Trump wants released.
The FBI’s short and sharp statement, its first on the issue, laid bare a Trump administration conflict that had previously played out mostly behind closed doors in meetings between top Justice Department and White House officials.
“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said.
The agency’s stance on the memo, conveyed in a two-paragraph statement, escalates the dispute and means that Trump would be openly defying his hand-picked FBI director by continuing to push for the memo’s disclosure. It also suggests a clear willingness by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who in the early stretch of his tenure has been notably low-key, to challenge a president who just months ago fired his predecessor, James Comey.
The FBI statement came the day after Trump was overheard telling a congressman that he “100 percent” supported release of the four-page memo, which was drafted by Republicans on the House intelligence committee. The Republicans have said the memo reveals surveillance abuses by the FBI and the Justice Department in the early stages of the investigation into potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.
Democrats have called the memo a “cherry-picked” list of GOP talking points that attempts to distract from the committee’s own investigation into Russian meddling in the election that sent Trump to the White House.
The drama comes as Special Counsel Robert Mueller also is investigating whether the Trump campaign improperly coordinated with Russia during the campaign and whether Trump sought to obstruct the inquiry by, among other actions, firing Comey.
Under the House committee’s rules, the president has five days to object to the memo’s release, which the panel voted to authorize Monday. But Trump himself already has urged the release, and it could come sooner. By late Wednesday, it had not yet been settled whether the White House or the committee would handle the actual release.
Earlier this week, Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a direct appeal to White House chief of staff John Kelly not to release the memo, warning that it could set a dangerous precedent.
But the president has been undeterred.
Television cameras captured Trump, on the House floor after the State of the Union address, telling South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan that he backed the release. When Duncan implored him to “release the memo,” Trump said, “Oh yeah, don’t worry. 100 percent.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN Wednesday that a legal and national security review of the document was continuing. Trump had not read the memo as “as of last night prior to and immediately after the State of the Union,” she said.
Kelly said Wednesday on Fox News Radio that he expected the memo to be released “pretty quick.”
Trump has been telling confidants in recent days that he believes the memo will validate his concerns that the FBI and Justice Department had conspired against him, according to one outside adviser familiar with those conversations but not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
The president also has told allies that he believes the memo bolsters his belief that accusations of collusion between his campaign and Russian officials are false and part of a conspiracy to discredit his election.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Devin Nunes, the House intelligence chairman and a close ally of the president, fired back at the law enforcement agencies, calling the FBI and Justice Department objections “spurious.”
“It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign,” Nunes said. “Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again.”
Nunes stepped aside from leading the committee’s investigation last April amid an ethics investigation into whether he had improperly disclosed classified information. He was later cleared and resumed his leadership role.
The White House counsel’s office has been in possession of the memo, officials say. The National Security Council is leading a review, which will also involve the White House legal team.
The vote to release the memo was unprecedented in the committee’s history. The panel usually goes out of its way to protect classified information in the interest of shielding intelligence sources and methods.
In the hours before the Monday vote, Rosenstein told Kelly the memo didn’t accurately characterize the FBI’s investigative practices, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The Justice Department had said in a letter last week that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release the memo without first giving the FBI and the department the chance to review it.
After those complaints, Wray reviewed the memo over the weekend. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, who was with him when he reviewed the memo, said the FBI director did not raise any national security concerns. Gowdy said the memo doesn’t reveal any intelligence methods but does reveal “one source.”
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.