WASHINGTON — Claiming vindication and straining to derail the Russia probe, President Donald Trump declassified a top secret congressional memo Friday, and suggested it proved the investigation of his presidential campaign was fatally flawed. Democrats said the document did nothing to clear him or his campaign, and the FBI called the memo inaccurate and incomplete.
Butting heads just as they had before the memo’s release, Trump and his critics stuck to the positions they had staked out in the weeks leading up to the hotly disputed release of the memo prepared by Republicans on the House intelligence committee. The memo makes their case — and Trump’s — that abuses in the early stages of the FBI’s investigation made it worse than worthless.
The Democrats, having none of it, said the four-page memo merely cherry-picks Republican talking points in an effort to smear law enforcement and undercut the current federal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, said the GOP document “mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information” and its release “will do long-term damage to the intelligence community and our law enforcement agencies.”
The memo’s central premise is that the FBI relied excessively on anti-Trump research funded by Democrats in seeking a warrant to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign associate and that federal authorities concealed the full details of who was paying for the information.
The disclosure of the document is extraordinary since it involves details about surveillance of Americans, national security information the government regards as among its most highly classified. Its release is likely to further escalate an intra-government conflict that has divide the White House and his hand-picked law enforcement leaders.
Trump, who lashed out at the FBI and Justice Department Friday morning, refused to express confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and is mentioned by name in the memo.
Asked if he was more likely to fire Rosenstein, and if he still had confidence in him, Trump retorted, “You figure that one out.”
A senior White House official said later the administration expects Rosenstein to remain in his job.
Trump has been telling confidants he believed the memo would validate his concerns that the FBI and Justice Department conspired against him. Though the document had been classified since it deals with warrants obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the White House declassified it Friday and sent it to the intelligence committee chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, for immediate release.
The development also comes amid an ongoing effort by Trump and congressional Republicans to discredit the investigation by Mueller that focuses not only on whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia but also on whether the president sought to obstruct justice. Republicans seized on the memo’s allegations to argue that the FBI’s investigation was politically tainted from the start.
But the memo does nothing to address obstruction questions that have led Mueller to express interest in interviewing Trump. It also reveals the FBI investigation actually began in July 2016, months before the warrant was even sought, based on information involving a separate Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, who has already pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Mueller inherited the probe in May 2017. Four people have so far been charged in his investigation.
Trump said Friday of the information in the memo: “I think it’s a disgrace. What’s going on in this country, I think it’s a disgrace.”
Earlier in the day, he tweeted, “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans – something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people.”
The memo offered the first government confirmation that the FBI in October 2016 obtained a secret surveillance warrant on a Trump campaign associate, Carter Page, on the basis that agents believed he might be an agent of a foreign power — Russia. That warrant was signed off on multiple times, including by Rosenstein.
In a statement, Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser and came on the FBI radar in 2013 as part of a separate counterintelligence probe, said, “The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy.”
The memo asserts that opposition research conducted by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, “formed an essential part” of the initial application to receive the warrant. It’s unclear how much or what information Steele collected was included in the application, or how much has been corroborated. Steele’s research into Trump and Russia was compiled into a series of memos, or dossier, containing salacious allegations.
Regardless, the FBI routinely relies on multiple sources of information when it obtains surveillance warrants. And the memo makes clear that the FBI believed there was probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power and a judge agreed — four times over.
Steele’s opposition research effort was initially funded by the conservative Washington Free Beacon. It was later picked up by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee through a Washington law firm. The memo says that Steele, a longtime FBI source, was suspended and then terminated for an improper disclosure to the media over his relationship with the memo.
Democrats pushed back on multiple assertions from the memo, saying it was not accurate the FBI had withheld from the court information about Steele’s potential political motivations or those of the people who hired him. They say the memo ignores the fact the investigation did not begin with Steele.
Schiff, the top Democrat, said the memo had “cherry-picked” information from Andrew McCabe, who stepped down as FBI deputy director this week. The memo describes him as having told the committee that no surveillance warrant would have been sought without the dossier.
Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, both disapproved of the memo’s release.
“Through decades in business, public service, and law, I’ve learned over and over again that there are at least two sides to every story, which must be closely considered in uncovering the facts. This memo tells only one side of the story – and a limited version at that,” King said in a statement.
“What is clear, however, is that this is an obvious attempt to discredit the work of the men and women at the FBI, whose association reminded us just today that they will continue to do their work to protect America regardless of distractions and partisan politics,” he added.
Collins had expressed concerns about the memo prior to its release, which she echoed on Friday.
“Prior to the release of this memo by the House Intelligence Committee, the Justice Department and the FBI raised serious and genuine concerns about the implications for our national security and stated that the memo omits key facts that ‘fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,’” Collins said in a statement. “ It does not appear that any redactions or revisions were made to satisfy these legitimate concerns.”
The memo release escalates a clash with the man he picked to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, after firing James Comey as agency director. Wray had warned the White House that the declassification and release could set a dangerous precedent.
Comey weighed in on Twitter, calling the memo “dishonest and misleading” and saying it had “inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin, Catherine Lucey, Matthew Daly and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.