President Donald Trump blocked the public release Friday of a classified House Democratic memo written in response to Republican claims that the FBI inappropriately spied on a Trump campaign adviser in 2016.
The House of Representatives can still vote to release the memo despite Trump’s action, which sets the stage for a partisan brawl in the House next week over the document’s fate.
The dueling Republican and Democratic memos are one front in a larger war over the legitimacy of a federal investigation into alleged Kremlin influence over Trump’s presidential campaign.
Democrats had issued their memo to rebut an earlier House Republican document which accused the FBI of misleading a federal judge to obtain an October 2016 warrant to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Trump approved the release of that GOP memo over the FBI’s public objection, and then insisted that the GOP memo “totally vindicates” him.
House Democrats quickly lashed out at the decision, which they called hypocritical and evidence that Republicans are exploiting classified information for political ends.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Trump’s decision to block the Democratic memo revealed the release of the earlier GOP version to be “a blatantly political move made without concern for national security.” Pelosi added: “The hypocrisy is on full display. What does the President have to hide?”
A Friday night statement from White House Counsel Don McGahn said that Trump was “unable” to declassify the 10-page memo, assembled by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, because it “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.”
The statement was accompanied by a letter from FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that identifies “information for which national security or law enforcement concerns are especially significant.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Democrats on the panel will review the recommendations by the Justice Department and FBI to “address any concerns” about revealing sensitive information.
The House Intelligence Committee can overrule Trump’s decision and vote to send the Democratic memo to the full House, which would then meet in a secret session to debate whether to make the document public by a majority vote. Both actions would require some Republican support.
Democrats had asked for a review of their document from the Justice Department and FBI in advance of its release. The House Intelligence Committee unanimously voted Monday to release the full Democratic memo, a signal that the committee believes “the public interest would be served” by the release of the document.
One committee member, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), told reporters earlier in the week that he didn’t believe much of the substance of the memo would need to be redacted or removed.
Democrats believe their memo refutes the GOP account of the surveillance warrant the FBI secured against Page. Orchestrated by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, the Republican memo accused senior FBI officials of failing to reveal that the warrant to surveil Page was based, in part, on a dossier compiled by a former British spy whose work was financed by the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Democrats say their memo contends that the FBI did in fact note the political nature of the dossier in its surveillance application — approved in October 2016 by a federal judge under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — and that Republicans mischaracterized the extent to which the FBI relied on the dossier to obtain its warrant.
Nunes and other Republicans have publicly conceded that the FBI did disclose that the dossier had political backing, but complained that the disclosure was relegated to a footnote.
Some Republicans with national security and intelligence backgrounds were sharply critical of Trump’s decision Friday.
“The White House’s failure to declassify the House Intelligence Committee minority memo — particularly in the face of unanimous bipartisan vote by the committee — represents a massive strategic miscalculation,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former lawyer in George W. Bush’s White House who has also served as senior counsel to the House Intelligence Committee.
“The decision to reject the committee’s request simply plays into the partisan narrative about the Nunes memo and deprives the American public of the benefit of both sides of highly politicized debate,” added Jaffer, now a professor at George Mason University.
Senate Democrats also denounced Trump’s decision.
“Refusal to release Democratic response to [the GOP memo] — evidence of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump happening in real time,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Although Republicans on the committee unanimously voted to send the memo to Trump earlier this week for a decision on its release, they repeatedly questioned its accuracy and whether it could contain national security information.
“I have numerous concerns with the public release of this information,” Nunes told colleagues shortly before voting to release the document. “[T]his memo contains a large volume of classified information, including some touching on sources and methods heightening thepotential to damage nationals security.”
Nunes said he wasn’t sure the Democratic memo had been fully scrubbed by the Justice Department or FBI — though Democrats have said they ran their document by DOJ and FBI officials last week and were awaiting a response.
“Nevertheless, in the interest of fairness and transparency, and because I am confident that classification issues would be appropriately addressed by the executive branch’s review process, I plan to vote in favor of making this memo publicly available.”
McGahn’s statement said the president has “directed that the 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.”
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