WASHINGTON — The White House signaled on Thursday that President Donald Trump would allow a secret memo written by Republican congressional aides to be made public, despite fears from some in the West Wing that it could prompt the resignation of the FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, and lead to another crisis for the administration.
Trump, who had a brief window to block the memo’s disclosure on national security grounds, was expected to tell Congress on Friday that he had no objections and would probably not request that any of its substance be redacted, according to a senior administration official.
The president’s eagerness to see the document made public pitted him against his own top national security officials, who have warned that it omits crucial context and that its release would jeopardize sensitive government information. The memo is said to accuse federal law enforcement officials of abusing their authorities in seeking court permission to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser.
White House aides worked on Thursday to accommodate concerns raised by Wray as well as Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence. It was unclear what changes, if any, were being made before the document was transmitted back to the House. White House officials cautioned that the situation remained fluid.
Once Trump’s decision is formally conveyed to Congress, the House Intelligence Committee, whose leaders have pushed for its release, can make the document public. Exactly how and when that would happen was not immediately clear. Republicans were relying on a never-before-used House rule and did not telegraph their plans.
Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had already tried unsuccessfully this week to persuade the White House to stop the release of the memo, and Thomas O’Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, issued a statement on Thursday supporting Wray. It thanked the director for “standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of the FBI” and came a day after the bureau itself strongly condemned the push for the memo’s release.
Despite the White House worries about his unhappiness at the prospect of the document’s release, Wray, who has kept a relatively low profile since taking over the FBI in August, was unlikely to resign over this issue, people familiar with his thinking said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking to reporters at the Republicans’ annual policy retreat in West Virginia on Thursday, rejected criticisms of the memo and offered a full-throated defense of the document.
“This memo is not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice. It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general,” he said, referring to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating the Russian election meddling and whether Trump obstructed justice.
Instead, Ryan said, the memo was the product of Congress employing oversight of the executive branch.
Trump has told the people close to him that he believes the memo, which the White House confirmed he had read, makes the case that law enforcement officials acted inappropriately and with bias in the early days of the Russia investigation. He has spent less time talking about it in the White House than some of his supporters have, however.
But people close to Trump who have been told of the memo’s contents, both inside and outside the White House, conceded that the document was not likely to deliver on those expectations.
Republicans who have seen the 3 1/2-page memo say it makes a case that political bias infected a key action in the early stages of the Russia investigation. It contends that officials from the FBI and Justice Department may have misled a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge when they sought a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, in October 2016.
The memo says the officials relied in part on information handed over by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that the research was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, according to people who have read the document. And it says the material from Steele was not vetted.
Law enforcement officials described Steele not as an investigator funded by Democrats but as a reliable source to the bureau who had provided helpful information about corruption in FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, according to two people familiar with the warrant application.
The memo is also said to take note of the role of several senior law enforcement officials, including Rosenstein and Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI who quit under pressure this week. Both men were said to be involved at various points in authorizing applications for the surveillance that Republicans say was flawed.
The document was primarily written by Kashyap Patel, a committee staff member for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
Democrats who have seen it say the Republican document amounts to a risky attempt to construct a narrative to undercut the Russia investigation. They say it relies cherry-picked facts and disregards key context.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., called the document “a banal, inferior, non-shocking, insubstantial memo.”
“Obviously they wanted to make a point and claim prejudice against President Trump,” he said Thursday. “When you read the Democratic side, the minority report, it is pretty obvious that all the information that could be before the judge was there.”
Page had been on authorities’ radar for years. He had visited Moscow in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December when investigators obtained the warrant.
Tensions ran high on Thursday among lawmakers, with the House and Senate Democratic leaders calling on Ryan to remove Nunes from his chairmanship and one senior Republican senator cautioning that his House colleagues should slow down their push to release the document.
Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee spent the day arguing over charges by Democrats that the Republicans had made “material changes” to the memo after the committee voted to release it but before it was transmitted to the White House for review. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, wrote in a letter late Wednesday that the committee needed to restart the process and vote on the revised memo.
Republicans quickly countered that Schiff was “complaining about minor edits” and said their vote was “absolutely procedurally sound.” But a senior Democratic official familiar with the changes said the Democrats had found five material differences in the versions of the memo, including one that the official described as an apparent effort to water down the Republican findings. There were six separate changes to grammar or word choice, the official said. It was not immediately clear whether the changes were related to those requested by the FBI.
In a sharply worded letter, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, called on Nunes to be removed as the Intelligence Committee’s chairman.
“Congressman Nunes’ deliberately dishonest actions make him unfit to serve as chairman, and he must be removed immediately from this position,” she wrote, adding, “The integrity of the House is at stake.”
Ryan dismissed the idea during his afternoon news conference, saying that the Democrats were merely “playing politics.”
Ryan — speaking in part to his Republican colleagues — urged readers of the memo not to “draw lines” between the material discussed in it and the work or character of Mueller or Rosenstein.
The plea was not universally embraced.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who has been among the memo’s most vocal advocates, wrote on Twitter that the FBI was right to have “grave concerns” about the release “as it will shake the organization down to its core.”
At least three prominent Republican senators — John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 in the Senate; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona — urged caution. Flake, in a joint statement with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said releasing the memo “risks undermining U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts, politicizing Congress’ oversight role, and eroding confidence in our institutions of government.”
Thune said he thought that the Senate Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., should be allowed to see the document before its release. And he called for a Democratic memo rebutting the Republican document to be shown to the public at the same time.
Speaking to reporters in a Charleston, South Carolina, hotel on Thursday night, Graham expressed concerns over the handling of the memo, which he, like other senators, has not read.
“I’m the chair of the Judiciary Crime Subcommittee with oversight of the FBI,” he said. “I don’t particularly appreciate having to read about it in the paper.”
He suggested that Nunes’ document was not the best avenue for informing the public.
“A partisan memo,” he said, “is going to lead to another partisan memo.”
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