President Donald Trump’s feud with the US Justice Department is coming to a head with FBI memo release
An extraordinary statement from the law enforcement agency pits it against a commander in chief who has already shown no qualms in firing top officials, and event wants to remove the attorney general
The long-simmering feud between President Donald Trump and the Justice Department looks to erupt into open conflict with the FBI publicly challenging the president’s expected release of a contentious and classified memo related to the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
In a rare unsigned statement, the FBI cited “grave concerns” with inaccuracies and omissions in the four-page memo, which was written by House Republicans and alleges abuses at the Justice Department connected to secret surveillance orders. Trump has told advisers that the memo could benefit him by undercutting the special counsel’s investigation and allow him to oust senior Justice Department officials – and that he wants it released soon, something that could happen as early as Thursday.
“We have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said.
Wednesday’s extraordinary statement pits the nation’s top federal law enforcement agency against a commander in chief who already has fired one FBI director and has repeatedly expressed a desire to remove the attorney general and others connected to the Russia investigation. That probe, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, is aimed in part at determining whether any Trump associates coordinated with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, and investigating any related issues.
The FBI’s public warning came after several days of failed attempts by FBI Director Christopher Wray and other Justice Department officials to convince the president and his senior staff in private meetings that the memo should be blocked because it poses a risk to national security.
Trump was captured on video on Tuesday night after his State of the Union address telling a South Carolina congressman that he was angry about the memo’s conclusions and would “100 per cent” release it. “Don’t worry about it,” Trump told Representative Jeff Duncan, who was urging its disclosure.
Trump wants the memo released in coming days, according to senior White House officials and advisers who said the president sees it as key to making changes at the Justice Department – particularly pushing out Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation and who Trump regularly derides in mocking terms. One senior administration official said the White House had already heard and dismissed the FBI’s arguments and that the memo could be released as early as Thursday.
Officials said the FBI issued the statement knowing that it would probably not affect the decision. Within the FBI, many are resigned to the prospect that it will be made public soon but want to make clear their strong disagreement with the document’s claims and offer at least a general rebuttal, according to people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity.
The unsigned statement is likely to further exacerbate tensions between Trump and senior officials at the Justice Department. While raging about the special counsel’s investigation over the past year, the president has fired FBI director James Comey; shamed and sought to oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions; excoriated FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who stepped aside this week; and talked repeatedly about shoving aside Rosenstein.
The memo in dispute was written by staffers for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes earlier in January after the panel obtained documents related to a controversial dossier of allegations concerning Trump and his purported ties to Kremlin officials.
It alleges that the British former spy who wrote the dossier, Christopher Steele, passed bad information to the FBI – though people familiar with the document said it does not determine whether he did so intentionally or by mistake. The memo alleges that the information was used in an application to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, according to people familiar with the matter. Officials familiar with the Page case have said Steele’s information represented a small part of the secret court document.
Late on Wednesday night, panel ranking member Adam Schiff in a letter accused Nunes of making “material changes” to the memo before sending it to the White House – meaning the memo that panel members voted to make public is not the same one as the president is presently reviewing.
Schiff accused Nunes of “deliberately misleading” the committee, and demanded that Nunes withdraw the version he sent to the White House, insisting that “there is no longer a valid basis for the White House to review the altered documents” and approve their public release. Nunes could not be reached for a comment on Wednesday night.
A spokesman for the committee’s Republican majority called the changes “minor edits”.
It is highly unusual for the White House and the FBI to be so publicly at odds over a matter of national security, and it was unclear what impact the disagreement might have on the standing of Wray, Rosenstein or Sessions.
Trump has told advisers that Wray should make personnel changes more quickly at the FBI, but they have urged the president to have patience.
Senior FBI officials say the Republican Party memo’s allegations of abuse are inaccurate and unfair, but they also believe the FBI would not be able to effectively counter those claims, because many of the details are classified, according to current and former officials. And they have argued to Kelly and other White House officials that such a release would set a bad precedent.
“The FBI takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI,” the statement said, referring to the court that oversees use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to ensure the continuing integrity of the FISA process.”
The senior Justice Department officials have grown concerned that the White House’s process, which is supposed to include a review by lawyers and National Security Council officials, is not sufficiently thorough.
“No one here is going to make a decision that jeopardises national security,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday morning on CNN. “There’s always a chance” the memo won’t be released, she said.
But Trump allies have said for weeks the president will want the document released and that it is only a matter of time. Later Wednesday morning, Kelly told Fox News radio that the memo will “be released here pretty quick.”
The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines on Monday to make the document available to the public after Representatives Mark Meadows and other conservatives lobbied Trump on the memo’s release during the government shutdown fight.