WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has met with a top Justice Department official to review a classified Democratic memo on the Russia investigation, less than a week after he brushed aside objections from the same agency over releasing a Republican account.
The dueling memos – and Trump’s silence so far on whether he will release the Democratic version – have set up a standoff between Trump and congressional Democrats and deepened partisan fights on the House intelligence panel. The memos have become the recent focus of the committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, taking attention away from investigations into whether Trump’s campaign was involved.
The Democratic document is intended to counter the GOP memo, which criticized methods the FBI used to obtain a surveillance warrant on a onetime Trump campaign associate. The president has until the end of the week to decide whether to make it public.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to discuss differences between the two memos, and “we are undergoing the exact same process that we did with the previous memo, in which it will go through a full and thorough legal and national security review.”
White House chief of staff John Kelly said later that he’s instructed officials to complete an evaluation of the Democratic memo no later than Thursday. After that, Kelly said, “we’ll brief the president on it and he will have a decision to make” on whether to declassify it entirely, or perhaps declassify it with some redactions.
Kelly said the Democratic version is “not as clean a memo as the first one.”
The House panel voted unanimously Monday to release the Democratic memo, sending it to the White House.
Separate Russia investigations are underway by the Senate intelligence committee and special counsel Robert Mueller, whose team is scheduled to interview former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon next week.
The Mueller interview was confirmed by two people familiar with it. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about details of the interview.
Bannon is expected to face questions about key events during his time in the White House including Trump’s firings of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former FBI Director James Comey.
Also Tuesday, the House intelligence committee gave Bannon another week to negotiate the terms of a closed-door interview as the White House has put limits on what he can tell Congress. Bannon was under subpoena to appear Tuesday as part of the panel’s Russia probe, but Republicans pushed the deadline to next week as talks about the terms of his interview continued.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, said Bannon’s lawyer has told the committee that the White House will only permit him to answer 14 “yes” or “no” questions. He said Bannon is barred by the White House from talking about matters during the presidential transition, his time at the White House and communications with Trump since he left in August.
Schiff said the panel is in rare bipartisan agreement that the terms offered are unacceptable.
“Should Bannon maintain his refusal to return and testify fully to all questions, the committee should begin contempt proceedings to compel his testimony,” Schiff said.
Despite unity on the Bannon interview, partisan tensions continued to run high on the committee as lawmakers issued their dueling memos.
Schiff and other Democrats have raised questions about whether the committee chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, coordinated with the White House in drafting the GOP memo. After the document’s release last week, the president quickly seized on it to vent his grievances against the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies and said it “totally vindicates” him in the Russia investigations.
“The goal here is to undermine the FBI, discredit the FBI, discredit the Mueller investigation, do the president’s bidding,” Schiff said, adding that he thinks “it’s very possible” that Nunes’ staff worked with the White House.
Nunes was asked during a Jan. 29 committee meeting whether he had coordinated the memo with the White House. “As far as I know, no,” he responded. He refused to answer when asked whether his congressional staff members had communicated with the White House. He had previously apologized for sharing with the White House secret intelligence intercepts related to an investigation of Russian election interference before talking to committee members.
The Republican memo released last Friday alleges misconduct by the FBI and the Justice Department in obtaining a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Specifically, the memo takes aim at the FBI’s use of information from former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier containing allegations of ties between Trump, his associates and Russia.
The GOP memo’s central allegation is that agents and prosecutors, in applying in October 2016 to monitor Page’s communications, failed to inform fully a judge about Steele’s political bias and that his opposition research was funded in part by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
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