The White House just further escalated its war with federal law enforcement, including the FBI. But it’s not because of something President Trump did. It’s because of something that President Trump refused to do.
Trump just decided not to release a potentially damaging memo — written by congressional Democrats — that rebuts a previous Republican-authored document alleging anti-Trump bias in the FBI. Trump made the GOP document public last week, but won’t do the same with the Democratic memo.
In a letter sent late Friday to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and the author of the GOP memo, White House counsel Don McGahn writes that “although the President is inclined to declassify the February 5th Memorandum, because the Memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time.”
However, the letter adds that the president would be willing to review a new draft of the memo if they classify some portions. “Given the public interest in transparency and in these unprecedented circumstances, the President has directed that Justice Department personnel be available to give technical assistance to the Committee, should the Committee wish to revise the February 5th Memorandum to mitigate the risks identified by the Department.”
That’s curious. Trump had no problem allowing Congress to release the GOP’s memo without any redactions, even though the FBI said it had “grave concerns” about him doing so. By deciding not to release the Democrats’ version and sending it back to the House Intelligence Committee for a possible rewrite, Trump is essentially refusing to release the memo while making it seem like he’s open to the idea.
Still, Trump will have to withstand attacks from Democrats arguing he’s a hypocrite. But more than that, Trump will have to bat down charges he decided to keep the memo secret to hide the fact that the GOP document was widely derided as partisan spin.
The backstory on the dueling memos
Last week, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release the so-called “Nunes memo.” The four-page document, prepared by committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), focuses on surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser with business ties to Russia and open sympathies with the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
Page went to Moscow in July 2016 while he was serving on the Trump campaign, a move that raised eyebrows among the FBI agents investigating the Trump team’s ties to Russia. So the FBI and Department of Justice put together an application to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court — a court that approves surveillance warrants pertaining to national security and foreign intelligence — to start watching Page. The court granted the application in the fall of 2016, giving the FBI the green light.
Nunes’s memo claims that this surveillance was not properly vetted by the court; specifically, that it relied on the now-infamous Steele dossier, the document prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele alleging widespread collusion between Trump and the Russian government. The dossier, partially and indirectly funded by the Clinton campaign, is the report claiming, among other things, the existence of the so-called “pee tape.”
House Republicans and conservative media cast the Nunes memo as proof of Trump’s long-running allegations of FBI bias against him. But Democrats said it’s a deeply misleading document, twisting and cherry-picking classified intelligence to support the president.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, compiled his objections into his own memo — a 10-page document that is reportedly a detailed rebuttal to his colleague’s claims. Schiff’s paper also, according to CNN, attacks his Republican colleague’s motivations — arguing that Nunes’s memo is a political sham, designed to aid Trump’s attack on the FBI.
In somewhat of a surprise move, Nunes’s committee unanimously voted on Monday to release Schiff’s memo — putting pressure on Trump to make it public within five days. Now we know Trump won’t do that.
The situation was always awkward for the president. If he released the Schiff memo, the public might have seen how Nunes left out information to insinuate the FBI is biased against Trump. He may have felt keeping the memo secret — and withstanding Democratic barrages — was his best option.
Trump’s decision fits into a systematic effort by conservatives to harm special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which, among other things, looks into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. By not releasing Schiff’s account, the public can only verify Nunes’s story (which, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp pointed out, didn’t add up).