In an extraordinary public break with the White House, the FBI warned Wednesday that it has “grave concerns” about the accuracy of a disputed Republican memo on secret surveillance during the 2016 campaign that President Trump has promised to release.
The FBI said it only had a “limited opportunity” to review the classified four-page memo prepared by aides to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), a close Trump ally who chairs 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 nation’s premier law enforcement agency said in a two-paragraph statement.
The public pushback escalates a bitter conflict between the White House and senior officials at the Justice Department, who approved the FBI statement, as well as senior figures in the intelligence community, who have previously warned that release of the classified GOP memo could endanger national security.
FBI leaders have clashed with presidents in the past, but usually behind closed doors. Historians struggled Wednesday to find a precedent for the bureau’s public challenge to the White House.
“It’s like a neon billboard blinking, ‘Danger, don’t you dare do this,’” said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor who studies the presidency. “This is a sign of war.”
The FBI decided to go public after FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising Mueller’s investigation, failed to convince the White House or House Republicans that the GOP memo is misleading and its underlying classified material should remain secret.
Wray was allowed to read the classified memo in a protected room at the House on Sunday, but was not given an opportunity to suggest changes, according to two officials familiar with the process. He asked to make his case in a private briefing with House committee members, but that offer was declined.
The FBI statement was not issued in Wray’s name, but from the bureau itself, an effort to defend an institution that Trump and his allies have said is part of a “deep-state” conspiracy of entrenched national security officials to take down the president.
Trump has said the FBI’s reputation was “in tatters,” and he publicly berated FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who stepped down Monday before he had planned to retire. Trump also has repeatedly belittled Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions after the nation’s top lawman recused himself from the Russia investigation last year.
The latest clash is likely to erode Trump’s relationship with Wray. The president appointed Wray as FBI director after he fired James B. Comey last May for what the president later said was “this Russia thing.” Comey’s dismissal sparked a national uproar and led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
Despite Wray’s concerns about the memo, the GOP-led House committee voted along party lines Monday to release it. The committee voted against simultaneously releasing a written rebuttal from Democrats, who contend that the GOP memo deliberately misstates facts for partisan purposes.
The Republican memo reportedly asserts that the Justice Department misinformed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain a secret warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, an advisor in Trump’s campaign who had business ties to Russia, and that it shows the FBI has an anti-Trump bias.
At issue is whether the FBI accurately described to the secret court information supplied by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative. Steele had researched Trump’s connections to Russia for Fusion GPS, which was hired initially by Republican rivals and later by Democrats to conduct opposition research, and his file eventually was leaked to the media in a now-notorious dossier.
Democrats and law enforcement officials say the four-page GOP memo “cherry-picks” information from a much longer application to the FISA court. Those documents typically run 50 to 60 pages, officials said.
Nunes said Wednesday that he wasn’t surprised that the FBI wants to keep the memo secret.
“Having stonewalled Congress’ demands for information for nearly a year, it’s no surprise to see the FBI and [Justice Department] issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies,” he said in a statement.
“It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign,” he said. “Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again.”
Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team and rallied to his defense when Trump falsely claimed last year that President Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped,” has argued that the FBI has treated Trump unfairly.
During a closed-door hearing before the committee voted to release the document Monday, Nunes appeared to rule out letting Wray or other FBI officials meet with its members to express the bureau’s concerns.
“We are not going to be briefed by people that are under investigation by this committee,” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing that was released Wednesday.
Nunes also sidestepped a question from a Democratic member about whether he or his staff worked with the White House to produce the memo. “I would just answer, as far as I know, no,” he said.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, who is ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he expects Trump to release the memo.
“There is only one criteria for the president,” he said. “Not what’s in the national interest, not what’s in the interests of justice, but what’s in his narrow personal interest.”
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the Nunes memo raises “legitimate questions about whether an American’s civil liberties were violated,” but he warned his colleagues against using it to target the special counsel.
“This is a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller’s investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to take his course,” Ryan told reporters on Tuesday.
Some members of Ryan’s caucus aren’t heeding his advice.
“My view is this memo lays out the true facts that the Mueller investigation is built on a rotten premise,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) told Fox News. “That the entire foundation, that the entire basis for the Russia investigation, is fiction, that it’s not real.”