Trump Blocks Release Of Democratic Rebuttal To Nunes Memo
Last week, President Trump authorized the release of a memorandum prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee. This memo purported to summarize the content of an October 2016 application by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign associate Carter Page pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the time, this action was taken over strong objections from the intelligence community and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which asserted that the memo would reveal information that would compromise national security by, among other things, providing information that could lead adversary intelligence agencies toward discovering closely guarded sources and methods used in American intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. Late yesterday, in what qualifies as a classic “Take Out The Trash Day” news dump, the White House announced that President Trump blocked the release of a rebuttal memo prepared by the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member Congressman Adam Schiff that is intended to rebut the claims in the Nunes memo, citing national security claims not dissimilar to those contained in the raised at the time he was considering releasing the original memo:
WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday blocked the release of a classified Democratic memo rebutting Republican claims that top federal law enforcement officials had abused their powers in spying on a former Trump campaign aide, a move that Democrats denounced as politically motivated hypocrisy.
Last week, the president moved quickly, over the objections of the Justice Department and the F.B.I., to declassify the contents of a rival Republican memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee staff members. He claimed, incorrectly, that the Republican memo had vindicated him in the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference.
But Donald F. McGahn II, the president’s lawyer, said in a letter to the committee on Friday night that the Democratic memo could not be released because it “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” He said the president would again consider making the memo public if the committee, which had approved its release on Monday, revised it to “mitigate the risks.”
Under the obscure rule invoked by the Intelligence Committee to initiate the document’s release, the committee could choose to make those changes, or could decide to seek a vote of the full House to try to override Mr. Trump’s decision.
Democrats expressed outrage at the president’s decision. “Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee voted UNANIMOUSLY to release this memo,” Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama, a Democratic member of the committee, wrote on Twitter. “@realDonaldTrump is not interested in transparency, he is interested in protecting himself and derailing the Russia investigation.”
Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, had said earlier in the week that he feared that Mr. Trump would play politics with the dueling memos.
Mr. Schiff, who has traded bitter Twitter messages with the president after Mr. Trump called him one of “the biggest liars and leakers” in Washington, warned this week that Mr. Trump might call for “political edits” intended to erase embarrassing parts of the memo, not information related to national security.
In a statement on Friday night, Mr. Schiff said that Democrats had provided their memo to the F.B.I. and the Justice Department for vetting before it was approved for release by the committee. The Democratic memo was drawn from the same underlying documents as the Republican one.
“We will be reviewing the recommended redactions from D.O.J. and F.B.I., which these agencies shared with the White House,” Mr. Schiff said, “and look forward to conferring with the agencies to determine how we can properly inform the American people about the misleading attack on law enforcement by the G.O.P. and address any concerns over sources and methods.”
Representative Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and the biggest champion of the Republican memo, said in a statement that he “had warned that the Democratic memo” revealed intelligence sources and methods, and that “it’s no surprise that these agencies recommended against publishing the memo without redactions.”
“Intelligence Committee Republicans encourage the minority to accept the D.O.J.’s recommendations and make the appropriate technical changes and redactions so that no sources and methods are disclosed and their memo can be declassified as soon as possible,” he said.
Mr. McGahn said Mr. Trump was “inclined to declassify” the Democratic memo, and encouraged the committee to make the changes that he said the Justice Department had identified as important for “national security and law enforcement interests.”
“The executive branch stands ready to review any subsequent draft of the Feb. 5 memorandum for declassification at the earliest opportunity,” Mr. McGahn wrote to the committee.
In his letter, Mr. McGahn said that Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, had identified portions of the memo for which they had “significant concerns.” Mr. McGahn referred the committee to a separate document — not released publicly — in which Mr. Wray and Mr. Rosenstein were said to provide details to the committee about those concerns.
Democrats say their 10-page memo corrects key mischaracterizations and crucial omissions in the Republican case. The Republicans’ three-and-a-half-page memo focused on the F.B.I.’s use of material from a former British spy, Christopher Steele, to obtain a warrant to spy on Carter Page, the former Trump campaign official.
Mr. Steele was gathering information on possible connections between Russia and Trump associates, but the Republican memo says that the F.B.I. did not disclose to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that he was being paid by the Democratic National Committee and lawyers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
People familiar with the Democratic memo said that it argues that the F.B.I. was more forthcoming with the surveillance court than Republicans had claimed. It says that while the F.B.I. did not name the Democratic National Committee or Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, the bureau did disclose to the court that the information it had received from Mr. Steele was politically motivated.
Mr. Nunes has since conceded that the political nature of the material was included in a footnote — a fact confirmed in a letter released this week by two senior Republican senators. But Mr. Nunes said the disclosure still fell short.
Democrats also say Republicans misrepresented the words of Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy director of the F.B.I., when they said he told the committee late last year that the agency would not have sought a wiretap of Mr. Page without Mr. Steele’s dossier of information.
“One week ago, the Department of Justice and F.B.I. implored the White House not to release a deeply flawed and inaccurate memo prepared by Chairman Devin Nunes,” Mr. Schiff said in his statement. “The White House ignored their concerns and approved the publication of the Republican memo with no redactions even though the action was described by the agencies as extraordinarily reckless and omitting material facts.”
President Trump responded to the pushback against his decision to block the Schiff memo this morning on Twitter:
The Democrats sent a very political and long response memo which they knew, because of sources and methods (and more), would have to be heavily redacted, whereupon they would blame the White House for lack of transparency. Told them to re-do and send back in proper form!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2018
It’s possible, of course, that the objections raised by the FBI regarding the Schiff memo are well-founded and that it does reveal things that need to be kept classified for national security reasons. It’s worth noting, for example, that Schiff’s memo reportedly runs to ten pages whereas the Nunes memo was only just over three pages long. This likely means that it is far more factually detailed than its companion memo is and that some of those facts may include things that need to be kept classified for valid national security reasons. If that’s the case, then it seems as though it would be relatively easy for Schiff to revise the memo in consultation with the Bureau to address those concerns and prepare a revised memo that avoids doing that so that the rebuttal can be released, It’s hard to judge that, though, because both the memo and report prepared by the Bureau regarding suggested changes to the Schiff memo remain classified for obvious reasons. Based on what we do know, though, it’s hard not to smell a partisan rat here, and to suspect that, at least on the part of the White House, there are ulterior motives for the decision to side with the Bureau and the intelligence committee as a reason to block the release of the Schiff memo despite the fact that the President ignored or brushed aside similar objections raised from the same parties regarding the Nunes memo just a week ago.
Notwithstanding all of that, as I said it’s hard not to see ulterior motives on the part of the White House here, especially given the circumstances under which the decision was announced. This is especially true when you look at the details of what has happened over the past week.
When the decision was made to release the Nunes memo, it was announced early in the day last Friday and the committee was able to release the memo well before the end of the day, putting it in the headlines for the rest of the weekend. Of course, as it turned out, that memo did not stand up to scrutiny. Contrary to President Trump’s claims the next day, for example, the memo did not “totally vindicate” him with respect to the Russia investigation, indeed the memo itself barely touched on the premise of that investigation and acknowledged that the Russia investigation had begun three months prior to the first application for a FISA warrant against Page based on information about an entirely different Trump campaign associate. Additionally, it quickly became apparent that the Nunes memo had omitted and represented significant details about the FISA warrant application against Page such as the fact that the FISA Court was in fact advised of the political nature of the funding behind its preparation. For that and a variety of other reasons, it’s clear that the Nunes memo was a complete dud and that it did not have the impact that many conservatives and Trump supporters had claimed it would.
Additionally, it’s worth remembering that Trump essentially ignored the strong objections of the FBI and other agencies, which included rumors that F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray could resign in protest if Trump authorized the release of the Nunes memo. Despite those objections, Trump went ahead and authorized the release of the Nunes memo without any redactions at all. Now that he’s presented with a counter-memo that is intended to rebut the underlying claims of the Nunes memo, it does seem odd that the President is suddenly concerned with the national security implications that might come with releasing the Schiff memo. It seems just as likely that he was looking for an excuse to block or at least delay the release so as to minimize the impact that it might have on public opinion.
Some might say that the President deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to national security issues such as this. Under ordinary circumstances, that would be an argument I’m willing to accept as reasonable. These, however, are not ordinary circumstances, As I’ve noted repeatedly here over the past nearly three years that Donald Trump has been on the political stage there is little reason to give this President the benefit of the doubt, and that applies to his White House as well given the extent to which they have enabled and reinforced his penchant for exaggeration, lying, hyperpartisanship, and most especially the President’s rather obvious desire to undermine the Russia investigation. Given all of that, it is difficult to believe at face value that there were legitimate reasons for a decision that seems to be so blatantly partisan.
Update: For some reason, the option to post comments on this post was turned off. I’ve fixed that issue so you should be able to comment now.
Here’s the White House letter regarding the decision to block the release of the Schiff memo: