A secret Republican-drafted memo purporting to detail government abuse of foreign intelligence laws has become the latest point of contention in the partisan battle over ongoing investigations into President Donald Trump and Russian meddling in the last election.
The memo was drafted by Republican staff members of the House Intelligence Committee, and its contents have not been made public. But the Republican majority on the committee voted Thursday to make the memo available to all House members, and on Thursday night through Friday, members filtered into a secure room in the basement of the Capitol to read the document.
Some of the chamber’s most conservative members expressed shock over its contents and called for its public release.
Right-wing media trumpeted the memo’s existence, with Fox News host Sean Hannity saying the still-secret abuses the document alleges are “far worse than Watergate” and calling on special counsel Robert Mueller to once again end his “witch hunt” investigation. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., also latched on to the issue.
And on Friday, a group of 65 House Republicans sent House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes a letter urging the document's public release.
But Democrats denounced the memo, with the top Democrat on the committee labeling it “an effort to distract” from the probes into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Rep. Adam Schiff of California called it “a profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI and its handling of the investigation.”
“This may help carry White House water, but it is a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals,” Schiff said in a statement Thursday.
On Friday, Democrats on the committee issued a joint statement calling the memo “a misleading set of talking points attacking the FBI,” adding that the document is based on “highly classified” information that only some members can see, making it “impossible” for them to “explain the flaws and misstatements contained.”
“This is by design,” the statement said.
"Not surprisingly, the GOP campaign to attack the FBI now has been joined by the same forces that made common cause during the Trump campaign — Wikileaks, Julian Assange and a multitude of online Russian bots are now involved in promoting this effort. It should be seen for what it so plainly is: yet another desperate and flailing attempt to undermine Special Counsel Mueller and the FBI, regardless of the profound damage it does to our democratic institutions and national security agencies," the statement concluded.
The memo comes at the end of another tumultuous week in Russia-Trump developments.
On Tuesday, the House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to former top White House strategist Steve Bannon after he refused, on White House instruction, to answer questions during what was initially a voluntary appearance before the committee. That same day, news broke that Mueller had subpoenaed Bannon to appear before a grand jury, the first member of Trump’s inner circle to be summoned. Bannon later agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigators.
The committee then abruptly postponed a planned interview with White House communications director Hope Hicks, on the same day it released the transcript of its November interview with Glenn Simpson, the cofounder of Fusion GPS, the research firm that commissioned the dossier alleging Trump links to the Kremlin. The transcript detailed Simpson’s suspicions about Trump’s ties to Russian efforts to launder money through real estate purchases and other businesses.
It’s unknown at this point what’s in the memo, other than that it relates to alleged abuse during the Russia investigation by the FBI and Department of Justice of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a key, controversial portion of which Congress voted to reauthorize for six years this week. Trump signed the extension into law Friday afternoon.
But the Republican descriptions of the allegations in the memo echo a theme that has been lodged against the FBI’s Russia-Trump probe since last spring, when Nunes, who also was a member of Trump’s transition team, summoned reporters to the Capitol to declare that some of the Trump campaign’s communications had been swept up in legal surveillance under FISA.
After that incident, Nunes recused himself from the committee’s Russia probe when the House Ethics Committee said it was investigating him for potential "unauthorized disclosures of classified information." He was later cleared.
But Republicans, without providing any details, have continued to raise allegations of FISA abuse in their complaints about the Russia probe, suggesting, for example, that the FBI used the dossier to persuade the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during the 2016 campaign to issue an order to surveil Carter Page, a campaign foreign policy adviser to Trump who had previously worked in Moscow. Trump referenced that claim in a tweet last week that confused many on Capitol Hill before the House voted on the FISA bill his administration supported.
No evidence has surfaced that the dossier played a role in the monitoring of Page or in triggering the FBI’s probe of Russian election meddling. The New York Times reported last month that a report from Australia’s ambassador to London triggered the investigation.
Citing the memo’s existence, privacy advocates on Friday urged the president to veto the bill Congress passed to reauthorize the controversial section 702, which Congress voted to approve this week and which allows intelligence agencies to spy on foreigners who are outside the US.
However, Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who’s led the committee’s Russia investigation since committee Nunes stepped aside, said the FISA memo, written by Republican staff on the committee, does not relate to section 702.
“[Section] 702 was not directly related,” Conaway told reporters Friday. “FISA’s a very broad law, with multiple sections. Section 702 was not involved.” Conaway declined to provide more details but said, “we’re very troubled by what we found,” adding that he’s seen “much of” the memo’s underlying evidence.
Though Conaway said he’s “leaning in” the direction of making the memo public, he acknowledged that Congress has only limited ability to declassify documents. “We’re talking to the parliamentarian about how that might happen, but that conversation’s ongoing and has not been resolved yet,” Conaway said.
Republicans pushing for the classified memo’s release argued that releasing it wouldn’t compromise the FBI’s sources and methods. “It will, however, reveal the feds’ reliance on bad sources and methods,” New York Rep. Lee Zeldin said in a statement Thursday.
Schiff’s statement blasting Republicans for the FISA memo echoed a sharp warning issued by his Democratic counterpart on the Senate Intelligence Committee before the holidays. In a rare speech about the Russia investigation on the Senate floor, Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chair of the committee, called attention to a “seemingly coordinated” effort involving some Republican members of Congress, White House staff, and right-leaning media to discredit Mueller’s criminal probe.
Warner asked his colleagues to make a “clear and unambiguous statement that any attempt by” Trump to remove Mueller, pardon witnesses, or shut down the investigation would be "a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities."
The speech followed accusations from House Republicans — many of whom are those now most vocal in calling for the release of the FISA memo — of anti-Trump bias on Mueller’s team. They cited, among other things, text messages sent by Peter Strzok, a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence agent who had worked on both the Hillary Clinton email and Russia investigations, that were critical of Trump during the 2016 campaign.
At the time, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who is now calling for the FISA memo’s release, said the Department of Justice should appoint a second special counsel to investigate the allegations of bias. Mueller has removed Strzok from his team, and the Justice Department’s Inspector General office is reviewing the FBI’s handling of the Clinton probe.