The president’s decision pits him against some of his top law-enforcement officials, who warned of a threat to national security. The memo is said to accuse FBI agents of abusing authority in seeking a court order to surveil a former campaign aide.
WASHINGTON — The administration signaled Thursday that President Donald Trump would allow a classified memo written by Republican congressional aides to be made public, despite fears from some in the West Wing that it could prompt the resignation of the FBI director, Christopher Wray, and lead to another crisis for the administration.
Trump, who had a brief window to block the memo’s disclosure on national-security grounds, was expected to tell Congress on Friday that he had no objections and would probably not request that any of its substance be redacted, according to a senior administration official.
The president’s eagerness to see the document made public pitted him against his own top national-security officials, who have warned that it omits crucial context and that its release would jeopardize sensitive government information. The memo is said to accuse federal law-enforcement officials of abusing their authority in seeking court permission to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser.
White House aides worked Thursday to accommodate concerns raised by Wray and Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence. It was unclear what changes, if any, were being made before the document was transmitted back to the House. White House officials cautioned that the situation remained fluid.
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Once Trump’s decision is formally conveyed to Congress, the House Intelligence Committee, whose leaders have pushed for its release, can make the document public. Exactly how and when that would happen was not clear. Republicans were relying on a never-before-used House rule and did not telegraph their plans.
Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had tried unsuccessfully this week to persuade the administration to stop the release of the memo, and Thomas O’Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, issued a statement on Thursday supporting Wray. It thanked the director for “standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of the FBI” and came a day after the bureau itself strongly condemned the push for the memo’s release.
Former FBI director James Comey, who was fired by Trump, tweeted Thursday evening about the FBI statement: “All should appreciate the FBI speaking up. I wish more of our leaders would. But take heart: American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field, so long as good people stand up. Not a lot of schools or streets named for Joe McCarthy.”
Despite the worries about his unhappiness at the prospect of the document’s release, Wray, who has kept a relatively low profile since taking over the FBI in August, was unlikely to resign over this issue, people familiar with his thinking said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking at the Republicans’ annual policy retreat in West Virginia on Thursday, rejected criticisms of the memo.
“This memo is not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice. It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general,” he said, referring to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian election meddling and whether Trump obstructed justice.
Instead, Ryan said, the memo was the product of Congress employing oversight of the executive branch.
Trump has told the people close to him that he believes the memo, which the White House confirmed he had read, makes the case that law-enforcement officials acted inappropriately and with bias in the early days of the Russia investigation. He has spent less time talking about it in the White House than some of his supporters have, however.
But people close to Trump who have been told of the memo’s contents conceded that the document was not likely to deliver on those expectations.
Republicans who have seen the 3 ½ -page memo say it makes a case that political bias infected a key action in the early stages of the Russia investigation. It contends that officials from the FBI and Justice Department may have misled a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court judge when they sought a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, in October 2016.
The memo says the officials relied in part on information handed over by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that the research was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, according to people who have read the document. And it says the material from Steele was not vetted.
Law-enforcement officials described Steele not as an investigator funded by Democrats but as a reliable source to the bureau who had provided helpful information about corruption in FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, according to two people familiar with the warrant application.
The memo is also said to take note of the role of several senior law-enforcement officials, including Rosenstein and Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI who quit under pressure this week. Both men were said to be involved at various points in authorizing applications for the surveillance that Republicans say was flawed.
The document was primarily written by Kashyap Patel, a committee staff member for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the intelligence panel.
Democrats who have seen it say the Republican document amounts to a risky attempt to construct a narrative to undercut the Russia investigation. They say it relies cherry-picked facts and disregards key context.
Page had been on authorities’ radar for years. He had visited Moscow in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December when investigators obtained the warrant.
Tensions ran high on Thursday among lawmakers, with the House and Senate Democratic leaders calling on Ryan to remove Nunes from his chairmanship and one senior Republican senator cautioning that his House colleagues should slow down their push to release the document.
Republicans and Democrats on the House intelligence panel spent the day arguing over charges by Democrats that the Republicans had made “material changes” to the memo after the committee voted to release it, but before it was transmitted to the White House for review. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the panel, wrote in a letter late Wednesday that the committee needed to restart the process and vote on the revised memo.
Republicans countered that Schiff was “complaining about minor edits” and said their vote was “absolutely procedurally sound.” But a senior Democratic official familiar with the changes said the Democrats had found five material differences in the versions of the memo, including one that the official described as an apparent effort to water down the Republican findings. There were six separate changes to grammar or word choice, the official said. It was not immediately clear whether the changes were related to those requested by the FBI.
At least three prominent Republican senators — John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 in the Senate; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona — urged caution. Flake, in a joint statement with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said releasing the memo “risks undermining U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts, politicizing Congress’ oversight role, and eroding confidence in our institutions of government.”
Speaking to reporters in a Charleston, South Carolina, hotel on Thursday night, Graham expressed concerns over the handling of the memo, which he, like other senators, has not read.
“I’m the chair of the Judiciary Crime Subcommittee with oversight of the FBI,” he said. “I don’t particularly appreciate having to read about it in the paper.”
He suggested that Nunes’ document was not the best avenue for informing the public. “A partisan memo,” he said, “is going to lead to another partisan memo.”