WASHINGTON – Two weeks after President Donald Trump blocked its full release, the House Intelligence Committee published a partially blacked-out version of a classified Democratic memo aiming to counter a GOP narrative that the FBI and Justice Department conspired against Trump as they investigated his ties to Russia.
The document’s release Saturday was the latest development in an extraordinary back and forth between Republicans and Democrats about the credibility of multiple inquiries into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the integrity of the top U.S. law enforcement agencies.
The document attempts to undercut and add context to some of the main points from a declassified Republican memo made public earlier this month. In that memo, Republicans went after the FBI and the Justice Department over the use of information compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor the communications of onetime Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
The GOP memo included the assertion that the FBI obtained a surveillance warrant without disclosing that Steele’s anti-Trump research was paid for by Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The Democratic memo says the Justice Department disclosed “the assessed political motivation of those who hired him” and that Steele was likely hired by someone “looking for information that could be used to discredit” then-candidate Trump’s campaign.
Republicans say that is not enough because the Clinton campaign and the DNC were not named. Trump seized on this point in a tweet Saturday evening: “Dem Memo: FBI did not disclose who the clients were – the Clinton Campaign and the DNC. Wow!”
The White House on Feb. 9 had objected to the Democratic memo’s release, citing national security concerns. That sent the Democrats back to negotiations with the FBI, which approved a version with parts of it blacked out. It was then declassified and released.
Trump had no such concerns about the GOP memo, which he declassified in full on Feb. 2 over strong objections from the FBI about the memo’s accuracy.
The Democratic memo asserts that the FBI’s concerns about Page long predate the compilation of memos drafted by Steele, now known as the Trump-Russia “dossier,” and that the government’s application to monitor Page’s communications details suspicious activities he undertook during the 2016 presidential campaign. That includes a July 2016 trip to Moscow in which he gave a university commencement address.
The memo contends that the Justice Department provided “additional information from multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting” in the dossier. Most of the details of the corroborated information are blacked out, but they do appear to reference Page’s meeting with Russian officials. The memo says the Justice Department didn’t include any “salacious allegations” about Trump contained in the Steele dossier in the government’s application to seek a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
The memo also details Russian attempts to cultivate Page as a spy. It cites a federal indictment of two Russian spies suspected of targeting Page for recruitment and notes that the FBI interviewed him based on those suspicions in March 2016.
The Democrats say the FBI made “made only narrow use of Steele’s sources” in the government’s FISA application for Page.
Republicans say that is still too much.
“Again, the fact the minority cannot outright deny that a DNC/Clinton funded document was used to wiretap an American is extremely concerning,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement.
Trump has said the GOP memo “vindicates” him in the ongoing Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. But congressional Democrats and Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who helped draft the GOP memo, have said it shouldn’t be used to undermine the special counsel.
Partisan disagreements on the committee have escalated over the past year. Democrats have charged that Republicans aren’t taking the investigation into Russian election meddling seriously enough. They say the GOP memo is designed as a distraction from the committee investigation, which is looking into whether Trump’s campaign was in any way connected to the Russian interference.
Republicans say they are just alerting the public to abuses they say they’ve uncovered at the Justice Department and FBI.
The committee’s top Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff, said Sunday that the memo confirms the FBI followed proper procedure.
“I’m not surprised the White House tried to bury this memo response as long as they could,” Schiff said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But it’s important for the public to see the facts, that the FBI acted appropriately in seeking a warrant on Carter Page, that they are not part of some deep state as the president would like the public to believe.”
There are some points of agreement between the GOP and Democratic memos, including that the FBI did not open its counterintelligence investigation into links between Russian election interference and the Trump campaign because of Steele’s dossier.
Both memos show that the investigation was prompted by concerns about contacts between former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and people linked to Russia.
So far, Mueller has charged nearly 20 people as part of his investigation. Three Trump associates have pleaded guilty – and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors – including Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign aide Rick Gates.
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