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With Trump under investigation, Republicans crank up heat on the investigators, vote to release controversial memo

The GOP memo has become a flash point in the political battle surrounding Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

As President Trump seethes about the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, he's been able to count on rock-solid support from his Republican allies in Congress, who, amplified by conservative commentators on Fox News, have increasingly labored in recent weeks to raise public doubts about the probe.

Their efforts, cheered on by a president who has urged Republicans to "take control" of the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, are keeping Justice Department officials on the defensive at the same time prosecutors are seeking an interview with Trump himself.

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The latest step came Monday night when the House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines to release a classified memo that Republican members insist shows improper surveillance of Trump's campaign.

The committee's Republican majority refused to authorize Democrats to release their own memo, which challenges the Republican version. The panel's senior Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), called that vote an abuse that would "politicize the intelligence process."

"Today this committee voted to put the president's personal interest, and perhaps their own political interests, above the national interest," Schiff told reporters after the committee vote, which took place behind closed doors.

Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican and a member of the panel, said the committee voted to make the Democrats' memo available to the rest of Congress, much like the Republican version was shared earlier this month. It potentially could be released "when it goes through the same process as ours did," he said.

Justice Department officials have objected in unusually strong language to making public the four-page document, which was prepared by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) and is based on classified information. The White House could block its release, but Trump has already indicated his interest in making it public, a sign that he believes it could give him legal or political leverage.

For weeks, Republicans have scoured private text messages between FBI officials for evidence of partisan bias against Trump. They've also bottled up legislation designed to insulate Mueller from being fired, despite recent disclosures that the president tried to remove him last year.

"I don't think it's necessary," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday on Fox. "I don't think the administration wants to get rid of Mueller and therefore the legislation is not necessary."

At the same time, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs have used their shows on Fox News and the Fox Business Network to rail against an alleged "deep state" conspiracy by high-ranking law enforcement officials.

The escalating clashes over the investigation, which began as a probe of whether anyone from Trump's team helped the Russian efforts, come as Mueller appears to be examining whether the president obstructed justice by actions including the firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey last year. Trump later said "this Russia thing" was on his mind when he made the decision.

Mueller is expected to seek an interview with Trump, who said he's eager to speak with the special counsel's office despite advice from friends who consider the idea foolhardy.

"I hope his lawyers will talk him out of it," Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told "Fox and Friends," a morning show frequently watched by Trump.

The clash over the memo has shown Trump to be in conflict with his own Justice Department. Nunes prepared the document after intelligence agencies provided the committee with highly classified information involving the Russia investigation, including at least some of the evidence on which officials sought surveillance warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Stephen E. Boyd, an assistant attorney general who was appointed by Trump, sent a letter to Nunes on Jan. 24 saying the memo should not be released without a review.

"We believe it would be extraordinarily reckless for the Committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum," he wrote. Most of the members of the committee had not read the classified information on which the memo purports to be based, Boyd pointed out.

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FBI Director Christopher A. Wray was allowed to read the Republican memo over the weekend.

On Monday, the White House indicated that the Justice Department wouldn't get a say in its release.

"The Department of Justice doesn't have a role in this process," Raj Shah, the principal deputy press secretary, said on CNN on Monday morning.

If the president does not object to releasing the memo within five days of the committee's vote, it will become public. Under law, presidents have authority to declassify information if they conclude that doing so is in the public interest.

"The president is more inclined for transparency in this investigation," White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told "Fox News Sunday."

Susan Hennessey, a national security and governance fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, questioned the Republicans' goal in trying to make the document public.

"Is it a good-faith undertaking or a bad-faith undertaking?" she said. Releasing the memo could result in "maximum damage with the minimum possible public education."

Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Eric Swalwell and Rep. Jim Himes, three Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, leave a secure briefing room earlier this month.
Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Eric Swalwell and Rep. Jim Himes, three Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, leave a secure briefing room earlier this month. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

"Selective release of classified material is bad because it gives a misleading view of what the Intelligence Committee does," said Mieke Eoyang, a former committee staff member now at Third Way, a Washington-based Democratic public policy group. "You don't get a sense of what's normal and what's a deviation from the norm."

Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who works on issues involving classified information, said releasing the memo could rupture cooperation between intelligence agencies and the congressional committees that oversee them.

"You could really see a war emerge from this," he said.

Trump may use the memo to crank up the pressure on Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who supervises Mueller. Rosenstein has defended the special counsel's office, and replacing him could allow the president to exert more control over the investigation.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sidestepped a question Monday about whether Trump still has confidence in Rosenstein.

"When the president no longer has confidence in someone, you'll know," she told reporters at the White House press briefing.

Rosenstein and Wray met with officials at the White House on Monday, according to senior officials who were not authorized to confirm the meeting on the record.

The clamor has already forced out one high-ranking official, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who stepped down from the job Monday, announcing he would go on leave until March, when he already was planning to retire.

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Trump routinely has mocked and criticized McCabe, often inaccurately.

"How can FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leakin' James Comey, of the Phony Hillary Clinton investigation (including her 33,000 illegally deleted emails) be given $700,000 for wife's campaign by Clinton Puppets during investigation?" he tweeted in December.

McCabe's wife, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia state Senate in 2015 and got contributions from a campaign committee headed by the state's Democratic governor, a Clinton ally. That was before McCabe was promoted to deputy director and assumed a supervisory role in the investigation into Clinton's private email server.

Sanders denied that Trump pushed McCabe out.

"The only thing that the president has applied pressure to is to make sure we get this resolved so that you guys and everyone else can focus on the things that Americans actually care about, and that is making sure everybody gets the Russia fever out of their system once and for all," she said.

For Republicans, a series of text exchanges between two FBI employees, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, has become the raw material for an escalating barrage of attacks.

Strzok, an experienced counterintelligence agent who headed the probe into Clinton's handling of emails, later joined the Mueller investigation. He was reassigned after the texts surfaced during an investigation by the Justice Department inspector general about the handling of the email case.

Page, an FBI lawyer, had already left Mueller's team.

In texts exchanged during and after the campaign, Strzok and Page shared their mutual disdain of Trump, with messages calling him an "idiot" and deriding his conduct during a debate.

The attacks reached a new level of vitriol when two Republicans released a message that they said made reference to a "secret society" within the FBI.

"What this is all about is further evidence of corruption, more than bias, at the highest levels of the FBI," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

But a full reading of the text message suggested the reference was a wry joke shared between the two when they were apparently commiserating about Trump's victory, a point that Johnson later conceded was a "real possibility."

More conspiracy theories came after the inspector general announced that five months of texts had gone missing because of a technical problem affecting thousands of FBI-issued phones. The texts were later recovered.

In others, Strzok expressed reluctance to join the Mueller investigation of Russian interference and possible collusion, in part because of "my gut sense and concern that there's no big there there." Page said it would be a chance to participate in "maybe the most important case of our lives."

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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UPDATES:

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment by Rep. Tom Rooney.

4:02 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction to the House committee vote.

The article was originally published at 3:40 p.m.

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