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F.B.I. Condemns Push to Release Secret Republican Memo
The F.B.I. clashed publicly with President Trump for the first time on Wednesday, condemning a push by House Republicans to release a secret memo that purports to show how the bureau and the Justice Department abused their authority to obtain a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser.
"The F.B.I. was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it," the bureau said in a statement, referring to the House Intelligence Committee. "As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."
The high-profile comment by the F.B.I. thrust Christopher A. Wray, the bureau's director, into a confrontation with the president, who had abruptly fired Mr. Wray's predecessor, James B. Comey. Mr. Wray had pleaded in recent days at the White House to keep the document private.
Mr. Trump wants to see the memo released, telling people close to him that he believes it makes the case that F.B.I. and Justice Department officials acted inappropriately when they sought the highly classified warrant in October 2016 on the campaign adviser, Carter Page.
Democrats, who have sided with law enforcement on the matter, made a last-minute attempt to halt the process late Wednesday night when Representative Adam B. Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Representative Devin Nunes, its Republican chairman, charging that the Republicans had made "material changes" to the memo after voting to release it on Monday and before they sent it to the White House for review.
Those changes, Mr. Schiff argued, meant that the committee should halt the review process and vote on the new, altered memo – a proposition that could potentially take days.
Republicans quickly rejected Mr. Schiff's charge, saying that it was a "strange attempt to thwart publication of the memo."
"The committee minority is now complaining about minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the F.B.I. and by the minority themselves," a statement from Mr. Nunes's spokesman, Jack Langer, said. "The vote to release the memo was absolutely procedurally sound, and in accordance with House and committee rules."
It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Schiff's claim would have any effect on the outcome.
The president's stance on the memo puts him at odds with much of his national security establishment. The Justice Department has warned repeatedly that the memo, prepared by Republican staff members on the House Intelligence Committee, is misleading and that its release would set a bad precedent for making government secrets public, including sensitive sources of information and methods of intelligence gathering. F.B.I. officials have said privately that the president is prioritizing politics over national security and is putting the bureau's reputation at risk.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Nunes, of California, described the F.B.I. objections as "spurious" and accused the two law enforcement agencies of making "material omissions" to Congress and the courts.
"It's clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign," Mr. Nunes said in a statement. "Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again."
People who have read the three-and-a-half-page memo say it contends that officials from the F.B.I. and the Justice Department were not forthcoming to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge in seeking the warrant. It says the officials relied on information assembled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that Democrats had financed the research.
Mr. Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker, had been on the authorities' radar for years. He had visited Moscow in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December when investigators obtained the warrant in October 2016.
The memo has come to the forefront in a string of attempts by Mr. Trump's allies to shift attention from the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling and toward the actions of the investigators themselves. Republicans in Congress and in conservative news media have asserted that the memo will show political bias in the early stages of the Russia inquiry.
The Republican-led Intelligence Committee voted along party lines on Monday night to release it, invoking an obscure, never-before-used House rule to sidestep the usual back-and-forth between lawmakers and the executive branch over the government's most closely held secrets. Democrats on the committee objected and have prepared their own 10-page point-by-point rebuttal of the Republican document. The committee voted against releasing the Democrats' memo publicly.
Under the rule, Mr. Trump has five days from the time of the vote to try to stop the release for national security reasons.
Democrats have called the Republican document a dangerous effort to build a narrative to undercut the department's investigation into whether Mr. Trump's associates colluded with Russians and whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice. They say it uses cherry-picked facts assembled with little or no context and could do lasting damage to faith in federal law enforcement.
The F.B.I. statement ran counter to the decidedly low-key approach that Mr. Wray has taken as director, avoiding news media interviews and delivering anodyne speeches to law enforcement groups. He had worked quietly in the hopes of keeping the F.B.I. out of the president's cross hairs.
Since taking over the F.B.I. about six months ago, Mr. Wray has had to defend the bureau against the president's broadsides. But the director has done so in a nonconfrontational manner. In December, when Mr. Trump said the F.B.I.'s standing was the "worst in history" and its reputation in "tatters," Mr. Wray sent a message to the bureau's more than 35,000 agents and support staff saying that their professionalism and dedication were inspiring.
Stephanie Douglas, a former top F.B.I. executive, said Mr. Wray had to act on his concerns.
"His role as the F.B.I. director is about credibility," she said. "He's obligated by his role to speak the truth. I think he did the right thing. That's his job. If he didn't say something about a document lacking factual accuracy, he would have to make up for a lot of lost trust."
Mr. Wray had strongly objected to the move to release the memo and was allowed to review it only on Sunday, after Mr. Nunes relented. Mr. Wray made a last-ditch effort on Monday, going to the White House with the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to try to persuade the White House to stop the release of the memo. They spoke to John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, but were unsuccessful.
Mr. Rosenstein was also asked by the president last month whether he was "on my team," according to an official briefed on the exchange. Mr. Rosenstein appeared surprised but responded affirmatively, according to CNN, which first reported the encounter.
Democrats tried ahead of Monday's vote to allow Mr. Wray to brief the committee on the material underlying the memo – information so sensitive that only two members of the committee had been allowed to view it directly. But Mr. Nunes said that he was investigating the F.B.I. and would not allow the head of an agency under investigation to look at the information, according to a transcript of the closed-door session released on Wednesday.
Mr. Trump could only block the release of the memo, not make it public himself, but with his approval, House Republicans were expected to move quickly to unveil the document.
Ultimately, though, Mr. Trump was eager to see the document released. Even as the White House's review was continuing, Mr. Trump was overheard on Tuesday night as he exited his first State of the Union address assuring a House Republican that he would see to the document's release.
"Oh, don't worry, 100 percent," Mr. Trump told the lawmaker, Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina. "Can you imagine that?"
The memo is also said to highlight the role of several senior law enforcement officials, including Mr. Rosenstein, who authorized a renewal of the surveillance of Mr. Page in the spring of 2017. Mr. Trump has recently expressed his displeasure with Mr. Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel conducting the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III. And the memo could expose Mr. Rosenstein to some of the criticisms being directed by Republicans at other officials.
Also mentioned is Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy director of the F.B.I., who has been a target of Republicans in Congress and of Mr. Trump. Mr. McCabe stepped down on Monday, telling people close to him that he had felt pressured to because of a separate Justice Department inspector general investigation.
During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Wray foreshadowed Wednesday's confrontation. He told senators that he was no pushover and would resist political interference.
Mr. Wray has followed through. He resisted White House pressure to replace staff members, including Mr. McCabe, who were once loyal to Mr. Comey, to avoid appearing as though he was taking orders from the president in a job that is supposed to be politically independent. Mr. Wray did eventually sideline Mr. McCabe, who stepped down abruptly, but only after finding cause to do so.
In late September, Mr. Wray said in a speech in Washington that the F.B.I. would abide by the rule of law and that would not change as long as he was director. He also said the F.B.I. would not bow to intimidation.
"We're going to follow the facts independently," he said, "no matter where they lead, no matter who likes it."
[Source: By Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos, The New York Times, Washington, 31Jan18]
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