Trump steps up fight over Russia probe, backs release of secret memo

By Reuters/Doina Chiacu, Steve Holland   February 2, 2018 | 04:57 pm PT
Trump steps up fight over Russia probe, backs release of secret memo
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Republican National Committee's winter meeting at the Washington Hilton in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Yuri Gripas.
The document alleges bias against Trump at the FBI and Justice Department in the federal investigation into potential collusion between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

President Donald Trump and his Republican allies on Friday escalated a campaign against U.S. law enforcement agencies over their probe into Russia by making public a classified memo that the FBI had sought to keep under wraps.

The document, drawn up by congressional Republicans, alleges bias against Trump at the FBI and Justice Department in the federal investigation into potential collusion between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia and whether the president has sought to obstruct the probe.

Ignoring a plea from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Trump approved the release of the memo, deepening an extraordinary breach between the president and senior law enforcement officials over a probe that has dogged him during his first year in office.

Trump declassified the four-page memo, telling reporters its contents told a "disgraceful" story of bias against him. Republicans on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee wrote the memo and released it to the public.

The document has become a flashpoint in a battle between Republicans and Democrats over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's criminal probe into the Russia matter launched in May 2017 that grew out of an earlier FBI investigation.

Democrats say the memo uses cherry-picked classified information, and they believe Trump's allies might use it to give him a reason to fire U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller, or even Mueller himself.

Asked on Friday by reporters if he had confidence in Rosenstein or whether he would fire him, Trump replied, "You figure that one out." Dismissing Rosenstein would likely ignite a political firestorm for the president, much as his firing of FBI chief James Comey did last year.

"A lot of people should be ashamed," Trump said of the allegations made in the document.

Trump has called Mueller's investigation a "witch hunt," denying any collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. Moscow has denied any election meddling.

Writing on Twitter on Friday, Trump accused top U.S. law enforcement officers, some of whom he appointed himself, of politicizing investigations.

It was his latest attack on top justice officials. Trump fired Comey last May as the FBI pursued the Russia probe, leading to Mueller's appointment by Rosenstein. Comey later told a congressional hearing he believed his removal was an effort by Trump to undermine the Russia probe.

Senator John McCain strongly criticized his fellow Republicans and Trump for attacking the FBI and the Justice Department over Russia.

"If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin's job for him," McCain said in a statement, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Memo details

The document alleges the FBI concealed the Democratic ties of a source the agency used to justify surveillance on a former Trump campaign worker. It says a string of senior Justice Department officials signed off on this.

The document, commissioned by the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, Devin Nunes, focuses on court-approved surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, saying the FBI used a source who was strongly biased against Trump - former British spy Christopher Steele - to justify the action.

It alleged that a dossier of alleged Trump-Russia contacts compiled by Steele, and funded in part by U.S. Democrats, formed an "essential part" of requests to a special court to be allowed to conduct electronic surveillance on Page that began in October 2016.

It said the initial application and subsequent renewal applications, signed off on by various senior Justice Department officials including Rosenstein, did not mention the link between Steele and the Democrats. It also portrayed Steele as biased, saying he "was passionate about him (Trump) not being president."

The memo largely repeated allegations that Nunes and others had made publicly previously and did not include major surprises.

In a rare public rebuke of the president and Republicans in Congress who were pushing to release the memo, the FBI said on Wednesday it had "grave concerns about material omissions of fact" in the document and said it should not be made public.

A White House official said Trump had always been inclined to release the Republican memo, despite the FBI's urging that he not do so. He relied heavily on Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn in approving the release, the official said.

In his swipe at U.S. law enforcement leaders on Twitter hours before the memo's release, Trump said, "The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans - something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago."

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated he planned to refer the allegations against the Justice Department and the FBI in the Republican memo to the department's inspector general for investigation.

Democrats said the memo released on Friday used only partial information.

"The selective release and politicization of classified information sets a terrible precedent and will do long-term damage to the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement agencies," Democrats on the House intelligence panel said in a statement.

The Democrats said they hoped the committee would vote on Monday to release their own memo responding to the allegations.

The entire file that the Justice Department used to apply for permission to eavesdrop on Page remains highly classified, making it hard to evaluate the memo's contents.

While the memo focuses on an October 2016 court application for electronic surveillance of Page, it omits the fact that Page appeared on the FBI's radar screen much earlier, when he met in 2013 with Russians in New York who were officers of the Kremlin's foreign intelligence service. There was no evidence that Page knew the people were Russian intelligence officers but the contacts raised FBI suspicions.

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