Trump Wages War on FBI, Justice Department With Release of Nunes Memo

Numerous FBI veterans fear the bureau is now in a battle with the White House over its independence—with damage that may extend beyond the Russia inquiry.

Mark Wilson

Saying senior FBI and Justice Department officials “should be ashamed of themselves,” President Donald Trump declassified on Friday a Republican memo alleging surveillance abuses—over the furious objections of his senior law enforcement appointees.

The release of the memo, prepared by House intelligence committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes and his staff, placed the White House in a dangerous open conflict over the independence of the Justice Department and FBI. Nunes’ memo aids Trump in undermining special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with the Russian government and possible obstruction of justice by Trump.  

Conversations with FBI veterans ahead of the memo’s release indicated an atmosphere of intense uncertainty over the right wing’s attacks on the bureau—and even fear. Several wonder whether Trump’s chosen FBI director, Christopher Wray, will remain in his job, now that Trump has dismissed his repeated objections to a memo that portrays senior FBI and Justice Department officials as corrupt zealots manipulating the surveillance process to destroy Trump.

Nunes’ memo claims it calls into question the “legitimacy and legality of certain [Justice Department] and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.” It centers overwhelmingly on ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s famous dossier, which has often aroused Trump’s ire and which Nunes has extensively sought to discredit.

Yet it at the same time concedes that the FBI’s investigation into the Trump circle began not with the dossier but with a Trump campaign aide who has since pleaded guilty to cooperate with Mueller: George Papadopolous. “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok,” whom the GOP has portrayed as motivated by anti-Trump animus.  

That concession in the memo undermines months’ worth of GOP statements that the dossier played a central role in the Trump-Russia inquiry.

One of the memo’s targets, as The Daily Beast first reported, is Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who oversees Mueller. Trump has reportedly asked Rosenstein if he is “on my team.” Asked at the White House if he will now fire Rosenstein—a precursor to firing or constraining Mueller—Trump said Friday, “you figure that one out.” Also named are FBI and Justice Department officials frequently criticized on the right, such as ex-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, outgoing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, ex-FBI director James Comey and FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok.

The FBI on Wednesday publicly attacked the memo, saying it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Asked for comment on it, and about Wray’s future, the bureau said only that its Wednesday statement stands. After the memo’s release, the president of the FBI Agents Association, 80 percent of whose members are serving FBI special agents, strongly defended the bureau.

“The American people should know that they continue to be well-served by the world’s preeminent law enforcement agency,” said president Tom O’Connor in a statement.

Multiple former FBI officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe their recent discussions with friends still at the bureau, described bewilderment within FBI hallways over how the right’s fury at them has compounded. Agents, they said, simply want what they considered a manufactured controversy to go away.

Most worrisome to the FBI veterans were the implications of the episode on the bureau’s cherished independence. While agents are far from inclined to fight with Trump, they said, Trump’s apparent expectations that the bureau ought to express personal loyalty to him struck them as ominous. One former FBI official raised comparisons between Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian president whom Trump has praised.  

Reflecting an organizational culture that, despite the attacks of Trump allies, is notably conservative, several ex-agents labored in interviews to give Nunes and the memo the benefit of the doubt. Since a surveillance application to the FISA Court contains volumes of information, a fact that turns out to be incorrect can be repeated in a re-submission for a renewed warrant, a different former senior official said, who spoke from personal experience, but expressed bewilderment that someone could consider that abuse.

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This former senior official, who has been involved in numerous FISA-warrant submissions, recalled assembling probable-cause applications that numbered in the hundreds of pages. Justice Department attorneys who shepherd them to the secret court for approval are almost “mind-numbingly” conservative in what counts toward probable cause, for fear of having an application rejected, which is rare.

Title I FISA applications, as they are known, require a judge’s approval, as the memo acknowledges the surveillance on Page received.

The ex-official said it was appropriate for the FBI to be held accountable for mistakes, but expected oversight agencies to respond proportionately, rather than level accusations of wholesale FBI politicization, as Trump did this morning. Summarizing a voluminous FISA application in under four pages, the former official said, was a blueprint for stripping away relevant context.

The memo claims a particular but notably nonspecific role for Steele’s dossier, financed by Republican and then Democratic Trump opponents, in the FISA process—though the memo does not mention the GOP-aligned financing. The dossier “formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application,” the memo claims, confirming publicly that surveillance of a Trump adviser received multiple renewals, beginning from inception on October 21, 2016, including from Trump appointees Rosenstein and now-FBI general counsel Dana Boente. At least seven officials signed off on the renewals each 90 days—strongly suggesting, though not confirming, that Page remains under FBI surveillance and the intelligence committee may have revealed it.

Rosenstein, the memo claims, signed off on “one or more” warrant renewals on Page: a second would have expired in late January 2017; a third Rosenstein renewal would mean Page, who did not respond to a message seeking comment, is still under surveillance.

At least seven officials signed off on the renewals each 90 days—strongly suggesting, though not confirming, that Page remains under FBI surveillance and the intelligence committee may have revealed it

Comey excoriated the memo after its release, saying on Twitter:

“That’s it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”

An ex-official who was not involved in the surveillance application for Page said foreign intelligence services’ information—something reminiscent of but not equivalent to the Steele Dossier’s unverified assertions—does go into surveillance applications, but could not envision the dossier as even a substantial aspect of a FISA warrant. Several other FBI and Justice Department officials who have worked on FISA warrants have told The Daily Beast that since government attorneys could not vouch for Steele’s sources, they would not likely risk a judge’s rejection.

At bottom, all who talked to The Daily Beast wondered about the different world the bureau will inhabit—in its relationship with Capitol Hill, with the American right, and particularly with Trump—after the memo’s release. Several doubted that Wray can have a successful tenure after Trump ignored him to divulge a memo that sacrifices the FBI in order to protect his presidency from an investigation into potential collusion with the Kremlin.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) criticized the Nunes memo sharply, saying its “attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no America interest—no party’s, no president’s, only Putin.” Nunes’ Republican predecessor on the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, a former FBI agent, said earlier on Friday the memo ought not to be released.

“Unfortunately, I do” believe the House intelligence committee has lost its credibility, Rogers told NPR. “It’s not necessarily even the credibility from the public’s perspective. I know for a fact they’ve lost credibility with – they don’t trust Republicans and Democrats  to keep a secret anymore in the intelligence community.”

Adam Schiff, Nunes’ Democratic counterpart on the intelligence committee, excoriated Nunes, his memo, and the decision to release it.

“The sole purpose of the Republican document is to circle the wagons around the White House and insulate the President. Tellingly, when asked whether the Republican staff who wrote the memo had coordinated its drafting with the White House, the Chairman refused to answer,” Schiff said Friday.

Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee also investigating Trump and Russia, added: “Unlike almost every House member who voted in favor of this memo's release, I have actually read the underlying documents on which the memo was based. They simply do not support its conclusions.”

Nunes, in his own statement, said the memo revealed “serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes.” He suggested unnamed “reforms” were appropriate to “allow the American people to have full faith and confidence in their governing institutions.”