In statement attributable to FBI director – appointed by Trump – agency raises concerns about ‘material omissions of fact’ in document
Tom McCarthy in New York
The FBI said on Wednesday it had “grave concerns” about Donald Trump’s apparent intention to release a memo said to contain classified information about the bureau’s investigation into one of the president’s campaign aides.
After both Trump and the House speaker, Paul Ryan, made public statements supporting the so-called Nunes memo’s release, the fight over its fate took an extraordinary twist with the FBI’s highly unusual statement, which was ultimately attributable to the bureau director, Christopher Wray, Trump’s own appointee.
The clash between Wray and Trump is only the latest flare-up in what officials warn is an increasingly dangerous showdown between the White House and justice department, with a cycle of firings and retaliatory leaks potentially culminating in a spectacular firing or similar move by Trump that could threaten a constitutional crisis.
“We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said in its statement.
The memo in question, which Democrats have said cherry-picks classified material to make Russia investigators look bad, was assembled by the House intelligence committee chairman, Devin Nunes, a staunch Trump supporter and a member of his transition team.
Nunes issued a combative statement in reply, accusing the FBI of “surveillance abuses” and dismissing what he called the bureau’s “spurious objections” to the release of the memo. However, Nunes opposes the release of a parallel memo written by Democrats.
Though the Nunes memo’s precise contents are unknown, it is believed to describe a supposedly flawed request by the FBI to extend surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide.
The memo is being treated as potentially explosive in part because it is said to place responsibility for the supposedly flawed request at the door of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump used the mishandling of another FBI investigation as a pretext for firing former director James Comey in May 2017. The axe fell on Comey after Trump requested a loyalty pledge from the director which Comey said he declined to give.
Trump made a similar request of Rosenstein, CNN reported for the first time Wednesday, in a December meeting in which Trump is said to have asked whether the deputy attorney general was “on my team”.
“Of course, we’re all on your team, Mr President,” Rosenstein replied, CNN quoted unnamed sources as saying.
The prospective removal of Rosenstein, whom Trump has attacked elsewhere, would constitute a grave threat to the special counsel investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, analysts have warned.
Trump reportedly sought to exact a loyalty pledge from a third top justice department official, asking former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe whom he voted for in the presidential election in a meeting following Comey’s firing. McCabe stepped down in a surprise announcement Monday.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general, issued a warning about releasing the Nunes memo on Wednesday. “People must understand what is at stake by release of the bogus, contrived Nunes memo,” Holder wrote on Twitter. “It uses normally protected material and puts at risk our intell capabilities in order to derail a legitimate criminal investigation. This is unheard of – it is dangerous and it is irresponsible.”
Trump signaled his intention to release the memo during his departure Tuesday night from the House chamber, following his first State of the Union address.
Approached by a representative who urged him: “Mr President, let’s release the memo,” Trump was heard to reply: “Don’t worry, 100%. Can you imagine?”
Congressional Republicans have aggressively followed Trump’s lead in attacking the Russia investigators, briefly floating allegations last week of a “secret society” at work within the FBI to hobble Trump, before those allegations were retracted.
“Let it all out, get it all out there, cleanse the organization,” Ryan told colleagues at a breakfast event Tuesday, referring to the FBI.
That sentiment was part of a larger effort to discredit the FBI among Republicans, who cheered the announcement on Monday that McCabe, the deputy FBI director, would step aside earlier than formerly announced.
The move was interpreted in some quarters as a power play by Wray, whose interests in the matter were assumed to be aligned with the president who appointed him.
That picture was complicated by the release of the FBI statement on Wednesday, and by reports that Wray had sought to dissuade the White House from releasing the Nunes memo in a meeting Monday between Rosenstein and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.
Republicans have likewise echoed Trump’s attacks on Mueller, whom Trump ordered fired in June 2017, according to a New York Times report, only to back down amid resistance from White House lawyers.
Mueller reports to Rosenstein, who has testified before Congress that he alone has the power to fire the special counsel.