The House Intelligence Committee released a Democratic memo Saturday that staunchly defends the decision by U.S. law enforcement to start eavesdropping on a former Trump campaign advisor three weeks before the 2016 election, countering Republican charges that abuses tainted the process.
The dueling conclusions about the surveillance reflect the bitter partisan divide on the House committee and within Congress over how to view the broader criminal investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into whether President Trump or his aides assisted in Russian meddling in the campaign or obstructed justice in the White House.
The 10-page Democratic document, which was intended as a rebuttal to a four-page Republican memo released on Feb. 2, said the Department of Justice and the FBI "would have been remiss in their duty to protect the country" if they hadn’t investigated suspicious contacts between Russians and the former Trump campaign advisor, Carter Page.
Republicans had accused the Justice Department and the FBI of including some opposition research in their classified application for a secret warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in October 2016, and of failing to tell the judges the opposition research had been funded by lawyers working for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
But Democrats say authorities only made “narrow use” of the information collected by former British spy Christopher Steele, which was later leaked to the media in a now-notorious dossier. In addition, they said some of the research was corroborated by “multiple independent sources” and the judges were informed that there were political motivations behind Steele’s work.
Nearly a year of eavesdropping on Page led to “valuable intelligence," the Democratic memo says. Although the details are largely redacted, the document says the information contradicts Page's sworn testimony last year to the House Intelligence Committee.
The Democratic memo “should put to rest any concerns that the American people might have,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House committee, said in a statement. He said his party’s review “failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement.”
The Democratic memo also makes a broader case for supporting the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Page already was on the FBI’s radar before Steele’s research surfaced, and was interviewed by agents in March 2016, the same month Trump named him as a foreign policy aide. The memo says the bureau also previously had “opened sub-inquiries" into people "linked to the Trump campaign." The names were redacted.
"This investigation needs to go on,” Schiff said in an interview. “People need to stay out of Bob Mueller’s way."
Although Trump quickly agreed to declassify the Republican memo, he initially blocked the Democratic version by saying its contents were too sensitive, a delay that Democrats said was unwarranted.
Democrats negotiated with law enforcement officials to redact some details, only securing its release three weeks after the Republican document had roiled politics and dominated headlines.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Saturday that Trump supported releasing the Democratic memo “in the interest of transparency” even though it was, she said, an attempt “to undercut the president politically.”
“As the president has long stated, neither he nor his campaign ever colluded with a foreign power during the 2016 election, and nothing in today’s memo counters that fact,” Sanders said in a statement.
In a tweet, Trump called the Democratic memo “a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” He did not specify what laws he thought were broken.
The Republican memo was championed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), chairman of the House committee, and on Saturday he did not back off his earlier assertions.
“The American people now clearly understand that the FBI used political dirt paid for by the Democratic Party to spy on an American citizen from the Republican Party,” he said in a statement.
The release of the memo follows an intense period for the special counsel investigation.
On Friday, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, Richard Gates, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to federal agents. A day earlier, a federal indictment filed in Virginia had charged Gates and Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager and Gates’ business partner, with nearly three dozen counts of bank fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
None of the charges directly relate to Russian meddling during the campaign, but the alleged criminal scheme was carried out while Gates and Manafort were helping to run Trump’s campaign. Manafort has denied wrongdoing.
Mueller also has charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with conspiring to influence the U.S. election with thousands of social media posts, fake campaign events and other tactics in an effort to denigrate Clinton and help Trump win.
The Russia case began in July 2016 when the FBI received information about George Papadopoulos, who had served as a foreign policy advisor on the Trump campaign. He had reportedly claimed Moscow had dirt on Clinton, including stolen emails, and he pleaded guilty last year to lying to federal agents about his conversations with Russians.
Three months later, after submitting a lengthy classified application to a special surveillance court, the FBI and Justice Department were granted a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to conduct eavesdropping on Page starting on Oct. 21, 2016.
The approval signified that the court agreed there was probable cause to believe Page could be a Russian agent. He already had left his job as an unpaid foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign.
The initial 90-day warrant was renewed three times by three different judges, each time after new applications were reviewed and signed by top leaders at the FBI and Justice Department.
Page was never charged with a crime, and has claimed he was the victim of FBI overreach as part of a politically inspired effort to defeat Trump or undermine his presidency.
The memos became the focus of an extraordinary confrontation between Trump and the top officials he appointed to lead the FBI and Justice Department. Just before the Republican memo’s release, the FBI released a rare statement saying it had “grave concerns” about its accuracy.
Some Republican leaders were careful to say the GOP allegations were not aimed at undermining the Mueller investigation. Trump had no such reluctance, tweeting earlier this month that the Republican memo “totally vindicates” him and denouncing “little Adam Schiff” as “one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington.”
The Democratic rebuttal won’t be the last word in the controversy. Nunes has said he plans to release more memos on other aspects of the investigation. He said the State Department was one area he was examining.
Schiff said Republicans may be more cautious in the future, however.
“I don’t think they’ll go down this road of selectively declassifying information, because it backfired on them,” he said Saturday. “But I do anticipate that they’ll continue to find other ways to denigrate the work of the FBI in service of the president.”