Republican leaders are acknowledging that the FBI disclosed the political origins of a private dossier the bureau cited in an application to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, undermining a controversial GOP memo released Friday and fueling Democratic demands to declassify more information about the bureau’s actions.
At issue is whether the federal probe into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties is infected with political bias, as Republicans say — or whether the GOP is using deceitful tactics to quash the probe, as Democrats insist.
Democrats pounced on public comments over the past day by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and intelligence committee member Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), arguing that the GOP memo’s failure to mention a key footnote in the FBI application shows how the party has cherry-picked classified facts to protect President Donald Trump.
To provide a fuller picture, intelligence committee Democrats insist, House Republicans must vote on Monday to release a classified 11-page rebuttal they wrote to the GOP memo.
While Republicans say their memo, orchestrated by Nunes and released with President Donald Trump’s backing, demonstrates anti-Trump bias at the FBI and Justice Department that calls into question the entire Russia investigation, Democrats say Republicans committed the very sin — omitting crucial facts — of which they accuse the FBI.
If the House votes to release the Democratic memo, Trump will have five days to review it and either support its release — as he did the Republican memo — or object.
White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters on Monday that the administration would go through the same process it used to decide whether to release the memo authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. But he declined to say where the president was leaning and White House officials said they could not predict Trump’s ultimate decision.
“If that memo is voted out and it comes to the White House we will consider it on the same terms we considered the Nunes memo — which is to allow for a legal review, national security review led by the White House Counsel’s Office, and then within five days the president will make a decision about declassifying it,” Shah said.
The debate revolves around an October 2016 FBI application to a federal judge for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant against Page. That FISA application — and whether the FBI was fully transparent with a federal court that approved it in October 2016 — is at the heart of mounting allegations by President Donald Trump and allies in Congress that the FBI abused its spying authority during the 2016 campaign.
But Friday’s memo also acknowledged that the Page warrant came only months after the FBI had already opened an investigation into Russian influence over the Trump campaign because of information it had received about another Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadapoulos, whom The New York Times has reported learned in early 2016 that the Russians had stolen Clinton campaign emails.
The memo released Friday by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee excoriated FBI leaders for what it described as a crucial omission in that application: The fact that the dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele — was financed by the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
“Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior and FBI officials,” the memo alleged.
But in an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” Nunes was asked about reports over the weekend that the FBI application did refer to a political entity connected to the dossier. It is unclear precisely what language the application might have used.
Nunes conceded that a “footnote” to that effect was included in the application, while faulting the bureau for failing to provide more specifics.
“A footnote saying something may be political is a far cry from letting the American people know that the Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign,” Nunes said on “Fox & Friends.”
There’s no evidence that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign itself. Rather, the warrant for Page was issued in October 2016, a month after he left the campaign — and after Trump campaign officials denied he played a central role. But the surveillance of Page was part of an FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump associates coordinated with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Page is a key figure in the dossier, which makes the unsubstantiated allegation that he held a secret meeting with a top Russian oil executive and a close Putin ally to discuss helping to lift U.S. sanctions against Russia in return for a financial windfall. Page had also been investigated by the FBI in 2013, after he was the target of a recruitment effort by Russian spies in New York City. And the former investment banker and energy consultant also made a summer 2016 trip to Moscow where, after shifting explanations, he now admits he met with Kremlin officials. (Page says the meetings were brief and denies any wrongdoing.)
The intelligence committee’s memo, which Trump declassified Friday, casts Steele’s dossier as a key component of the Page FISA warrant. But the memo doesn’t clarify what other evidence might have been used to persuade a court to grant its application, which was renewed several times, including once by Trump’s own Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The memo notes that the government must provide “information potentially favorable to the target of a [surveillance] application,” but charges that FBI agents “withheld” their knowledge that Steele’s work had Democratic funding, and that Steele had openly expressed dislike for Trump.
Nunes’ comments follow a similar acknowledgment on Sunday by Gowdy, who also said the footnote revealed a possible political bias behind the dossier but called it convoluted.
“I read the footnote. I know exactly what the footnote says,” Gowdy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It took longer to explain it the way they did, than if they just come right out and said, ‘Hillary Clinton for America and DNC paid for it.’ But they didn’t do that.”
Administration officials and outside advisers said Trump was committed to releasing the Republican memo sight unseen, convinced that it would reinforce his long-standing belief that officials in his own government had sought to undercut his presidency. He has expressed no such determination to allow the Democratic memo to see the light of day.
Trump may have provided a window into his thinking when he unleashed a Twitter attack on the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), Monday morning. If Trump opposes the Democratic memo’s release, the committee may then refer it to the full House of Representatives for a vote to overrule him.
Among Schiff’s complaints about the GOP memo: he says the application to spy on Page only included snippets of the controversial dossier — and that those aspects may have been “subject to corroboration” by the FBI.
Though the president has unilateral authority to declassify intelligence, Shah said he White House would consider releasing he underlying surveillance application on Page if the committee votes to approve it.
Nunes, meanwhile, has also signaled that he’s not finished digging into what he described as Democratic abuses.
“I think the American people are just beginning to learn the truth about the Hilary campaign and the Democratic Party and their involvement in how they corrupted our institutions,” he said on Fox.
Nunes signaled that his next focus is on the State Department. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also indicated Monday he’s probing whether Clinton allies at the State Department helped inform Steele’s research.
Andrew Restuccia contributed reporting.
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