President Trump on Friday refused to authorize the release of a Democratic rebuttal to a controversial Republican memo that the FBI and Department of Justice abused their power to conduct surveillance of 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."
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee say the GOP memo is an attempt to mislead Americans about how the agencies obtained a warrant to wiretap Page. The Democratic members, led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, 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 President 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 the 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 last Friday by Republicans over the strong objections of the FBI — was written by the House Intelligence Committee's GOP staff at the request of Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
The intelligence committee voted unanimously Monday to release the Democrats' memo and send it to the White House, which had up to five days to review it and decide whether to stop it from becoming public. The vote came exactly one week after the Republican-led panel voted to release the GOP memo while rejecting a request from Democrats to release theirs at the same time.
"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 surveillance court.
"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 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.
After the Nunes memo was released, Trump declared that it was evidence that he had been vindicated 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 contributed