Washington braced today for the release of an explosive memo alleging abuse of power in the FBI's probe of Donald Trump's campaign, which has magnified tensions between the White House and the government's premier law enforcement body.
A White House official told AFP that Trump has read the memo, and Fox News and other media reported Wednesday he has decided to allow the release of the highly classified document before the weekend. The four-page memo was written by Republican lawmaker Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and purports to show the Justice Department and the FBI as deeply politicized, anti-Trump agencies.
Its release would amount to an outright rejection of the FBI's extraordinary warning Tuesday against the memo's release a warning that was unsigned but had to be approved by agency director Chris Wray. "We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy," the FBI said. A decision to release the four-page document put the White House on a direct collision course with Trump's own Justice Department, the broader intelligence community, Congressional Democrats and many Republicans.
Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have both pressed the leaders of Congress and the White House to hold back the memo, to no avail. Based on highly classified documents dealing with Russian espionage, Nunes' memo is his summary of what lay behind the FBI obtaining a so-called FISA national security warrant in 2016 to surveil Trump campaign official Carter Page, who had many Russian contacts.
Nunes alleges that the basis of the warrant application was the "Russia dossier," information on contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. The dossier remains contentious and unproven, and was financed in part by Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign a fact that Nunes says shows the FBI and Justice Department's anti-Trump bias and abuse of power.
But Nunes' effort is viewed by Democrats as aimed at undermining the Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, which has edged closer to the president himself. Leading Democrats Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday both called for Nunes to be removed from his position as head of the Intelligence Committee.
Nunes has "drafted and seeks to release a conspiracy themed memo that selectively cherry-picks classified information intended to discredit the past work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ultimately Special Counsel Mueller," Schumer said in a letter to House leader Paul Ryan. Members of the broader intelligence community meanwhile are outraged that Nunes and Trump would publish a document with top secret information related to counter intelligence operations.
Former CIA director John Brennan blasted Nunes in a tweet Wednesday. "I had many fights with Congressional Dems over the years on national security matters. But I never witnessed the type of reckless partisan behavior I am now seeing from Nunes and House Republicans. Absence of moral and ethical leadership in WH is fueling this government crisis." The memo controversy has brought to a peak Trump's war with the Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, over Mueller's ongoing Russia collusion investigation. Trump also remains incensed over the FBI's decision not to recommend criminal charges against Trump's election rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, in the "email server" probe that took place during the 2016 election.
In May 2017, Trump fired Wray's predecessor, James Comey. After that he put public pressure on FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, alleging he was biased toward Clinton and opposed to Trump. On Monday McCabe agreed to step down from his position, two months ahead of his scheduled retirement. The tensions come as Mueller's investigation increasingly focuses on the allegations that Trump and the White House have sought to obstruct the Russia collusion investigation. Mueller's team is in talks with the White House to interview Trump himself in the case. If Mueller decides to recommend obstruction charges, Trump could face an impeachment motion in Congress. By painting the Mueller probe and the FBI as deeply biased, Republicans could find it easier to defeat such a move.