Escalating its feud with the FBI and the Justice Department, the Republican majority of the House intelligence committee voted on party lines Monday evening to release a highly disputed classified memo attacking current and former FBI and Justice Department officials over surveillance in the Trump-Russia saga.
The Daily Beast learned that the vote followed negotiations by both the FBI and the committee to give greater access for the bureau, to a memo that the FBI has not seen and which the Justice Department warned might harm counterintelligence investigations should it be released without vetting.
After the vote, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the panel, said he had no confidence the majority would perform such vetting on a memo that he and all other committee Democrats have called a misrepresentation intended to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion between Trump allies and Russia.
“That is apparently the standard now for the release of classified information: If it’s good for the president, then fine,” Schiff told reporters. The committee’s Republicans did not immediately release a statement or give a press conference.
Discussions had continued until the 5 p.m. hearing to give FBI officials greater visibility into a memo that purportedly accuses the FBI and Justice Department of manipulating the process for obtaining a warrant to surveil a suspected spy. The creation of the memo was led by White House ally and Republican committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes. While Fox News and CNN reported that FBI Director Chris Wray had read the Nunes memo on Sunday, Schiff said the Republicans on the panel were “not willing to meet with the director of the FBI to hear the bureau’s concerns or department’s concerns.”
Schiff also revealed that the committee’s Republicans had formally opened an inquiry into the FBI and Justice Department—despite the panel having initially focused on Russia’s election interference and potential collusion with the Trump campaign. Schiff said that work would continue and anticipated interviewing Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, on Wednesday.
The vote to release the memo was made over the objection of the Justice Department last week when its Hill liaison warned a declassification of the memo that sidestepped the FBI and the department would be “extraordinarily reckless.”
Declassifying the Nunes memo in the absence of Justice Department-FBI guidance risks revealing information relevant to counterintelligence and providing active or potential surveillance targets with tips for circumventing investigations. The Justice Department’s Stephen Boyd, in his letter last week to the committee, said the department and the bureau sought to review the memo in order to advise on “the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that could come from public release”—remarks that reportedly angered Trump.
Representatives for Nunes and Texas Republican Mike Conaway, who is helming the panel’s Russia probe, did not respond to inquiries. The FBI declined to comment.
The White House views the Nunes memo as exculpation that senior officials involved in the Russia probe harbor bias against President Trump. According to The Washington Post, Trump views it as a potential pretext for firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller and has pledged to safeguard Mueller’s independence.
Named in the memorandum are recent targets of Trump and the House Republicans, as The Daily Beast first reported: Rosenstein; FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe; and James Comey, the FBI director Trump fired over the Russia inquiry. The Republicans’ declassification efforts come while Mueller is seeking to interview Trump about firing Comey, The Washington Post reported, though it is unclear if the president’s legal team will assent.
The New York Times reported that the memo blames Rosenstein for seeking renewal of an already-authorized surveillance warrant against Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Hours before the vote, McCabe moved up his timetable for his widely anticipated retirement. McCabe has been a target of Trump’s ire since it emerged that his wife received financial contributions for an unsuccessful Virginia state Senate bid as a Democrat from Terry McAuliffe, then the Virginia governor and a close ally of the Clintons, before McCabe oversaw the Hillary Clinton private-email-server investigation. The White House denied any role in ousting McCabe.
“Mr. McCabe has been deeply and unfairly maligned,” Schiff said Monday night, reiterating that he has seen no evidence of surveillance wrongdoing. “This committee and others have done a tremendous disservice to Mr. McCabe.”
It is an extraordinary fight for the House Republicans on the panel to wage. The House intelligence committee typically gives the prerogatives of the intelligence agencies a wide berth—particularly over securing classified information, and especially over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs the highly sensitive processes for investigating possible U.S.-based spies.
The senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, who has viewed the underlying surveillance information that the memo purportedly summarizes, told Politico that the memo was “connecting dots that don’t connect.”
The House intelligence committee’s Democrats have prepared an alternative memo intended to refute the one Nunes compiled. But Democrats lacked the votes to prompt its release at Monday’s hearing. The Republicans “evidently took the view that full transparency means only one side,” Schiff said.
Even if the House intelligence committee votes to declassify the Nunes memo, the process will take at least several days to result in the memo’s release. A little-exercised rule of the House provides for five days for the president to register objections to declassification before the full House can take a vote on release. A White House official indicated to CNN that Trump is prepared to override Justice Department reluctance to release the memo, and Schiff anticipated the same.
The White House wants “the memo published even though they haven’t read it. That should tell you all you need to know about the president’s priorities,” Schiff said.