WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday refused to authorize the release of a Democratic rebuttal to a Republican intelligence committee memo alleging that FBI and Justice Department officials abused their power to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
In a letter to House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the White House said it could not release the Democrats' memo because the Justice Department "has identified portions...which it believes would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests."
That explanation stands in stark contrast to his release of the GOP memo last Friday. The president approved its release over the strong objections of the FBI, which warned that it could jeopardize national security.
"The President’s double standard when it comes to transparency is appalling," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "The rationale for releasing the Nunes memo — transparency -- vanishes when it could show information that’s harmful to him. Millions of Americans are asking one simple question: what is he hiding?"
The president's refusal to release the Democrats' memo also goes against the committee's unanimous, bipartisan decision Monday to make it public. After the vote, the committee sent the memo to the White House to sign off on its release. Trump had until Saturday evening to decide whether to block it.
The committee could ask for a vote of the full House to override Trump's decision, but the GOP majority may not be willing to challenge the Republican president.
The letter said Trump has directed the Justice Department staff to work with the committee if Democrats want to make changes to their memo to "mitigate the risks identified by the department."
Before the intelligence committee voted to release the Democrats' memo, Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said it included information about an "independent source of the FBI," and made two references to the government's signals intelligence capabilities. The committee released a transcript of the meeting on Friday.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the committee's senior Democrat, said Friday night that Democrats had provided their memo to the FBI and DOJ for review before it was approved for release by the committee.
"We will be reviewing the recommended redactions from DOJ and FBI, which these agencies shared with the White House, and look forward to conferring with the agencies to determine how we can properly inform the American people about the misleading attack on law enforcement by the GOP and address any concerns over sources and methods," Schiff said.
He said he hoped the matter could be resolved quickly "so the committee can return to its charge — fully investigating the Russian interference in our election and the role of the Trump campaign, and what steps need to be taken to protect against foreign interference in the next election."
Democrats on the House intelligence committee say the GOP memo released last Friday was an attempt to mislead Americans about what information the FBI gave a judge to obtain a secret warrant to conduct surveillance on Page. The Democratic members, led by Schiff, say the FBI and Justice Department did nothing wrong in investigating Page's ties to Russia.
Democrats have been pushing to formally refute the GOP memo, which they see as an effort by Trump and his allies in Congress to divert attention away from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, and possible obstruction of justice by the president.
Republicans say their memo proves bias against Trump by top officials in the FBI and Justice Department.
The GOP memo — released by Republicans over the strong objections of the FBI — was written by the House Intelligence Committee's GOP staff at the request of Nunes.
"We think this (Democratic memo) will help inform the public of the many distortions and inaccuracies in the (Republican) memo," Schiff told reporters after Monday's vote.
The Nunes memo alleges that FBI and Justice Department officials relied on an unsubstantiated dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele to get a warrant to conduct surveillance of Page, who served on the Trump campaign's foreign policy advisory team.
The dossier was part of opposition research funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign to look into Trump's ties to Russia. The Nunes memo alleges that the FBI knew of the partisan agenda behind the dossier but did not tell the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. The so-called FISA courts are a secret court system set up after the Sept. 11 attacks and used to obtain warrants to spy on terror or espionage suspects.
"The truth is that they (Democrats) are covering up that Hillary Clinton colluded with the Russians to get dirt on Trump to feed it to the FBI to open up an investigation into the other campaign," Nunes said on The Hugh Hewitt radio show on Wednesday. "This is a massive cover-up of a major scandal that reached the highest levels of our government."
Democrats say federal officials told the court that the dossier was compiled for political purposes, although investigators did not specifically tell the court who paid for it. Democrats also say that the dossier was not the only evidence that federal officials used to obtain the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Page.
Schiff, a former prosecutor, said the FBI had plenty of reasons to be worried about Page's contacts to Russia beyond the dossier.
The FBI’s interest in Page and his possible ties to Russia date back to 2013, when federal investigators were concerned that Page -- owner of Global Energy Capital investment firm -- had been targeted by Russian intelligence agents for recruitment. That case came three years before the 2016 surveillance order described in the Nunes memo.
Democrats say the GOP memo contradicts its own premise that the Russia investigation began with Page and the dossier. As confirmed by the memo, the FBI began a counterterrorism investigation of former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in late July 2016 — about three months before federal investigators first sought the warrant on Page. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last fall to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians and is cooperating with Mueller's investigation.
Schiff said the GOP memo was released as Mueller's Russia investigation was drawing closer to the president. The special counsel is seeking to interview Trump.
“There is a rising sense of panic, clearly, within the White House and as well on the Hill," Schiff said Monday.
Trump declared that the Republican memo vindicated him in the Russia investigation.
"This memo totally vindicates 'Trump' in probe," the president tweeted Saturday. "But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on."
However, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other prominent Republicans in Congress say the Nunes memo is separate from the Mueller investigation and should not be seen as an attempt to undermine Mueller.
"Russia tried to interfere with our election in 2016, with or without a dossier," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former prosecutor and member of the House intelligence panel who helped advise staff on the GOP memo. "So you need an investigation into Russia.
– Gregory Korte and Brad Heath contributed