WASHINGTON (CN) – The much vaunted House memo on supposed FBI bias in the Russia investigation met with lukewarm reception Friday, but contains an odd disclosure about how the probe began.
Prefaced by a brief introduction by presidential counsel Donald McGahn, the 4-page memo accuses the FBI of omitting material information in its application for a warrant to surveil Carter Page when the former energy consultant was working on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
As part of their investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election,
federal investigators obtained the warrant from the U.S. Foreign Surveillance Court.
The secret court handles warrant applications for individuals suspected of being agents of foreign powers, and Page’s surveillance began after he was forced to quit the Trump campaign over reports of his contacts with the Russian government.
Indeed Page’s contacts with Russia raised red flags at the FBI as early as 2013, three years before he joined the Trump campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
But the memo accuses the FBI of taking undue influence from the still-unsubstantiated Trump dossier, which was compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy hired by the firm Fusion GPS.
Though it was Republicans that initially hired Fusion GPS to investigate Trump for opposition research, they backed out when Trump won the party nomination, leaving the door open for the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton to step in.
House Republicans say the FBI’s surveillance application failed to disclose the funding that the DNC and Clinton committed to the project.
“The initial FISA application notes Steele was working for a named U.S. person, but does not name Fusion GPS and principal Glenn Simpson, who was paid by a U.S. law firm,” the memo says.
That firm was Perkins Coie, which represented the DNC.
“The application does not mention Steele was ultimately working on behalf of – and paid by – the DNC and Clinton campaign, or that the FBI had separately authorized payment to Steele for the same information,” the memo continues.
There is no mention in the memo meanwhile of the funding initially provided by Republicans for Steele’s research.
Steele’s name appears in four of the memo’s five points, but the final bullet focuses on George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign staffer who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.
After asserting that there is no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy between Page and Papadopoulos, the memo appears to undercut the claim by Republicans that Steele’s dossier spurred the Russia investigation.
“The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok,” it states.
Republicans built up their memo as a scorching takedown, but former FBI director James Comey scoffed Friday at the final product.
“That’s it?” Comey tweeted. “Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former opponent of Trump’s in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, criticized the memo’s release as well.
“The FBI and Department of Justice are important to our country. While we must maintain oversight of these institutions, it has to be done in a bipartisan manner – not for partisan reasons or political gain,” Kasich said in a statement. “The manner in which this was done was wrong and does a disservice to our country.”
Kasich called for Congress and the president to stand down and let “the independent investigation into Russia’s meddling in our election … continue unimpeded.”
Republicans say that the House memo proves that Trump has faced political bias at the Justice Department and FBI, but the memo’s critics say it is intended to undermine Mueller’s probe of collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia.
Though the FBI did not issue a statement Friday, a rare warning from the bureau Wednesday described its “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The Justice Department also cautioned that the memo could expose FBI sources and methods.
Former FBI special agent Luke Hunt noted Friday that, regardless of whether the FBI apprised the surveillance court of Steele’s bias, “the important question thus becomes whether there was sufficient evidence to approve the FISA application.”
“An important point to remember is that sources are almost always biased,” said Hunt, now a professor of criminal justice at Radford University, in an email. “They’re not disinterested citizens without ulterior motives, and they’re often paid for their information.”
House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes defended the memo’s release Friday as a matter of transparency.
“The committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes,” said Nunes, a California Republican. “Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies exist to defend the American people, not to be exploited to target one group on behalf of another.”
A statement by the White House press secretary meanwhile focused oddly on a counter-memo that Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee say would rebut Republican claims of surveillance abuse.
“Minority members of the Committee have reportedly drafted a separate memorandum,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, neglecting to mention that Republicans on the committee blocked this memo’s release.
“The administration stands ready to work with Congress to accommodate oversight requests consistent with applicable standards, including the need to protect intelligence sources and methods,” the press secretary added.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, complained that the Republican memo fails to address any context — specifically “how the investigation began, what other information the FBI had about Russia’s efforts to interfere with our election, and what the FBI knew about Carter Page prior to making application to the court – including Carter Page’s previous interactions with Russian intelligence operatives.”
“The authors of the GOP memo would like the country to believe that the investigation began with Christopher Steele and the dossier, and if they can just discredit Mr. Steele, they can make the whole investigation go away regardless of the Russians’ interference in our election or the role of the Trump campaign in that interference,” Schiff added. “This ignores the inconvenient fact that the investigation did not begin with, or arise from Christopher Steele or the dossier, and that the investigation would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture.”
A frequent critic of the FBI since taking office, Trump defended the committee’s work Friday.
“I think it’s a disgrace, what’s going on in this country,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I think it’s a disgrace. The memo was sent to Congress, it was declassified.
“A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that,” Trump added.
FISA warrants must be renewed every 90 days. The FBI first sought and obtained a surveillance warrant for Page on Oct. 21, 2016, and obtained three subsequent renewals. House investigators determined that Comey signed off on three of the applications, with Deputy Director Andrew McCabe signing one.
The memo also notes that former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, then-Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein each signed one or more the applications on behalf of the Department of Justice.
After Trump ejected Comey and Yates from the FBI and DOJ, respectively, last year, Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to take over the Russia investigation as special counsel.
McCabe, who will become eligible for his full pension benefits in mid-March, announced on Monday that he was stepping down immediately from his post.