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US President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn upon his return to the White House in Washington, from Greenbriar, West Virginia, on February 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters

Explainer: Why Washington is at war over the Republican Russia probe memo

US Politics

The White House was working on Thursday to clear the release of a Republican memo alleging bias within the FBI and Justice Department against President Donald Trump.

That bias emerged as they investigated contacts between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, according to a Trump administration official.

Here is what is in play...

What is the memo?

The four-page classified document was commissioned by Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, and written by committee Republicans. 

According to sources familiar with it, the memo accuses the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department of misleading a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge last March.

They did so as they sought to extend an eavesdropping warrant against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, an oil industry consultant with numerous contacts in Russia, the memo alleges. 

Representative Devin Nunes (pictured on Wednesday) was in charge of the development of the memo, which has divided Washington. Republicans say it shows bias in the Russia investigation; Democrats say it’s just there to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

It also accuses the law enforcement agencies of failing to tell the judge that the warrant request was based on a dossier of alleged Trump-Russia contacts compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele in work partly financed by the Democratic National Committee.

Steele’s dossier contains a number of inflammatory and salacious allegations about Trump and his alleged connections to Russia. Trump has slammed the dossier as “bogus” and denies his campaign colluded with Russia. 

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress have focused heavily on the dossier and its DNC ties, as well as US surveillance of Trump associates while Democrat Barack Obama was still president.

They argue that Democrats instead should be the focus of federal and congressional investigations.

Why does it matter?

Democrats say the memo could be used by Republicans to try to undermine the credibility of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia to help him win the 2016 election. 

Mueller’s investigation also is examining whether Trump has committed obstruction of justice by trying to thwart the Russia probe that potentially threatens his year-old presidency. 

Democrats say Trump’s allies hope to use the memo to protect Trump, possibly giving the president, who fired FBI Director James Comey in May, an excuse to fire Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who hired Mueller

Some even think Trump may used the memo as an excuse to Mueller himself.

There are fears that the memo could be used as a pretext to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller (seen in 2011) from the Russia collusion investigation. File photo: Getty Images North America via AFP

What are other possible consequences of the memo’s release?

The release can be expected to widen the divide between Democrats and Republicans, possibly diminishing the credibility of any congressional findings on the Russia matter.

The release could weaken long-standing cooperation between lawmakers and intelligence agencies, which have shared classified information with Congress with the understanding that it would never be made public. 

The FBI said it had “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the Republican memo. Justice Department officials have said its release could jeopardise classified information.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after addressing the Republican congressional retreat at the Greenbriar resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

What role does the intelligence committee play?

The House intelligence committee is one of three congressional panels investigating Russia, Trump and the 2016 US election, even as Mueller pursues his criminal probe. 

The dispute over the memo has deepened a bitter partisan divide on the committee, whose Democrats accuse Republicans of seeking to focus on the Steele dossier and Page surveillance to protect Trump. 

Republicans say they merely want to publicise wrongdoing. Committee Democrats wrote their own memo countering the Republican one, but committee Republicans voted to prevent its release.