President Trump is prepared to approve the release of a controversial Republican-drafted memo about secret government surveillance as soon as Friday, a step that would put him at odds with his top national security officials but could give him a new tool to undermine public confidence in the Russia investigation.
The White House might not seek any changes to the classified document, a senior administration official said Thursday, even though FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have expressed concern about its contents.
“The president is OK with it,” the official said. “I doubt there will be any redactions. It’s in Congress’ hands after that.”
The FBI publicly warned Wednesday that it had “grave concerns” about the memo’s accuracy, a highly unusual challenge to the White House. Coats has privately expressed similar concerns to the White House, saying the release could set a troubling precedent for revealing classified information, according to another U.S. official.
Releasing the memo could put pressure on Wray, who was handpicked by Trump last spring to head the FBI, to respond or even step down. Trump fired Wray’s predecessor, James B. Comey, and has publicly berated several other senior officials at the bureau and the Justice Department, including Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
In a sign of the growing friction between the FBI and the White House, the union representing rank-and-file FBI agents offered strong support Thursday for Wray, saying he stood “shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of the FBI as we work together to protect our country from criminal and national security threats.”
The classified memo was prepared by aides to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Nunes has separately scrutinized claims of FBI surveillance abuses during the 2016 campaign.
The document apparently cites selective information from FBI interviews with confidential informants, classified material provided to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret and must approve intelligence-related eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, and other highly sensitive material.
The memo reportedly claims that the decision to start surveillance of Carter Page, then a Trump campaign advisor with business interests in Russia, was based in part on information provided by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was working for a U.S. firm collecting opposition research on Trump.
The subsequent counterintelligence collection on Page formed part of the broader criminal investigation, now led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the election.
Republicans say the memo proves the FBI abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process to undermine Trump’s campaign and ultimately his presidency. Democrats on the committee say the cherry-picking of information from the FISA application shows Republicans deliberately sought to embarrass the FBI and discredit the Mueller probe.
The Republican majority on the committee agreed Monday to release the memo — but refused to allow the simultaneous release of a lengthy rebuttal document drafted by Democrats, widening the partisan clash.
Conservative commentators and lawmakers have amplified dark speculation that its contents are scandalous. Democrats who have read the document say it skews the facts to present a partisan indictment.
“This memo is part of the slow-motion purge designed to undermine Robert Mueller’s investigation into the president and his allies,” said Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for President Clinton and president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “It’s yet another step on a slide into abuse of power.”
Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian, said the clash differs from previous conflicts between the FBI and presidents, which largely revolved around policy.
"This is about an investigation into [Trump’s] administration and him. It’s not just tension with the FBI. This is about trying to undermine an investigation into the White House,” Zelizer said.
The conflict has divided Republican lawmakers, who were attending a retreat at a resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on Thursday and found themselves facing repeated questions about a classified memo many had not read, instead of their recent success pushing tax cuts through Congress.
Senate Republicans, who have not been allowed to review the House memo, appeared more hesitant than their House colleagues about bucking the FBI to stand by Trump.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said administration officials and members of Congress should heed law enforcement warnings and concerns about the memo.
“They need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say about how this bears on our national security,” he said.
House Republicans, on the other hand, were eager to publicize the memo.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he had "zero" concern about the FBI's objections. "I'd like to see it out today," he said.
Lawmakers acknowledge the furor is being fueled in part by an influence campaign, including on social media, that is almost certainly being stirred up by Russian-aligned players, including Twitter bots.
“The Russians aren’t causing that, but I have no doubt they’re engaging and trying to elevate it,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They’re the kid on the playground shouting, ‘Fight, fight, fight.’”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) gave Nunes wide latitude to work on the memo, backing him in a dispute last month when Wray and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein objected to his requests for some highly-classified material that the FBI normally doesn’t share.
On Thursday, Ryan tried to tamp down expectations for the memo. He said it “is not an indictment” of American institutions, the U.S. justice system, the FBI or the Department of Justice.
"It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general,” Ryan told reporters, referring to Rosenstein.
The memo “is Congress doing its job and conducting legitimate oversight” of the FISA law, he said. “If mistakes were made and individuals did something wrong, it's our job as the legislative branch to conduct oversight over the executive branch if abuses were made.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) said Nunes should be stripped of his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
Pelosi said in a statement that Nunes had “abused his position to launch a highly unethical and dangerous coverup campaign for the White House.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to forestall the memo’s release. He accused Nunes of sending a copy to the White House that had been “secretly altered” with “material changes.”
Schiff said the process for releasing the classified memo needed to be restarted because the text had changed.
A spokesman for Nunes, Jack Langer, defended the changes as “minor edits” and described Schiff’s letter as part of an “increasingly strange attempt” to keep the memo under wraps.
Times staff writers Bennett and Megerian reported from Washington, and Mascaro from White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.