WASHINGTON – A GOP memo declassified on Friday accused senior law enforcement officials of misleading a court in order to conduct surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser, fueling a growing distrust between the White House and Republicans on one side and the Justice Department and FBI on the other.
The four-page document, which the FBI said is inaccurate, had been the focus of weeks of partisan fights leading up to its release by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, and that acrimony intensified after its publication.
"I think it's a disgrace what's happening in our country," President Donald Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that."
Publicly, the FBI said nothing, but Director Christopher Wray sent out a video and written statement to employees, urging them not to get distracted by the debate raging about them.
"The American people read the papers, and they hear lots of talk on cable TV and social media. But they see and experience the actual work you do – keeping communities safe and our nation secure, often dealing with sensitive matters and making decisions under difficult circumstances," Wray said. "And that work will always matter more. Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure."
The four-page memo, written by House Republicans, said its findings "raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain [Justice Department] and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)," which authorizes surveillance of individuals believed to be agents of foreign powers. The memo cites "a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process," a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The memo alleges that a surveillance warrant was obtained and renewed on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, with information from an individual with an anti-Trump agenda. And Republicans have charged that the warrant taints the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation into possible coordination between Trump associates and agents of the Russian government during the 2016 campaign.
It is unclear whether Trump will use the memo to fire people involved in the Russia probe, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees it. Asked Friday by a reporter whether he was more likely to fire Rosenstein after the release of the memo and whether he had confidence in him, Trump replied, "You figure that one out."
Democrats warned against any dismissals at the Justice Department, saying such moves would trigger a constitutional crisis.
Matthew Olsen, a former Justice Department official who used to oversee the FISA process, called the memo "a transparently political, amateurish effort" that does not raise meaningful legal questions about the application to surveil Page. "Not only does it not undermine the basis for the surveillance, but it reinforced that there was real merit and foundation for the application, because this application was approved and renewed multiple times," he said.
Olsen said he worried the memo would harm the working relationships among different parts of the government involved in gathering intelligence.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the issues raised by the memo are "of great importance for the country" and that the Justice Department "will fully and fairly ascertain the truth."
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday on Fox News that he, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and two committee investigators had written the memo, which was then checked by lawyers and other members. Nunes said he did not read the FISA application underlying the memo, leaving that, by agreement with the Justice Department, to Gowdy to review in a reading room at the department.
Nunes denied having coordinated his actions with Trump's lawyers or outside groups – some of which have started to call for Rosenstein's ouster. Nunes said that Rosenstein, Sessions and Wray "have work to do." To start, he said, "admit first that you have a problem – and they've been unwilling to do that."
The memo accuses Justice Department and FBI officials who approved the surveillance applications – a group that includes Rosenstein; then-FBI Director James Comey; his deputy, Andrew McCabe; and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates – of signing off on court surveillance requests that omitted key facts about the political motivations of the person supplying some of the information, Christopher Steele, a former intelligence officer in Britain.
The memo says Steele "was suspended and then terminated as an FBI source for what the FBI defines as the most serious of violations – an unauthorized disclosure to the media of his relationship with the FBI." The memo argues that Steele's contacts with reporters in the fall of 2016 "violated the cardinal rule of source handling – maintaining confidentiality – and demonstrated that Steele had become a less than reliable source for the FBI."
The memo also said that the court application "extensively" cites a Yahoo News article about Page but that the FBI believed Steele did not directly provide information to Yahoo News. The memo says Steele was a source for Yahoo News and that the Justice Department may have used the Yahoo story about Steele's allegations to confirm Steele's claims.
Page, the subject of the warrant, praised the memo's release. "The brave and assiduous oversight by congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of power represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America's democracy," he said.
One of the memo's targets reacted with disgust. "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."
The memo is not an intelligence community document and reflects classified information the Republican members of the committee gathered and summarized – information Democrats, the FBI and the Justice Department have criticized as incomplete and misleading.
Current and former law enforcement officials said before the release that a major concern inside the FBI is that the rules governing classified information would impede their ability to respond to the memo's accusations once it became public.
In September 2016, according to the memo, Steele acknowledged that he was "desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president," in a conversation with Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official.
At the time, Steele was researching possible Trump ties to Russia on behalf of Fusion GPS, a Washington firm that also hired Ohr's wife to do Russia-related research. Fusion GPS was initially hired in late 2015 by a conservative website funded by a major GOP donor who wanted research done on Trump's business history.
Then, in spring 2016, Fusion GPS was hired by a lawyer representing the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to continue researching Trump. After the Democrats starting paying Fusion GPS, the firm hired Steele.
The memo charges that law enforcement officials vouched for Steele as someone who had provided valuable information in an earlier corruption probe involving FIFA, the world soccer organization, but that they did not tell the court about his political views regarding Trump. "While the FISA application relied on Steele's past record of credible reporting on other unrelated matters, it ignored or concealed his anti-Trump financial and ideological motivations," the memo states.
Law enforcement officials have said that they often rely on information from people with grudges or agendas to begin investigations but that agents are expected to check the accuracy of any claims before seeking a warrant.
One U.S. official familiar with the FISA application said the Justice Department made "ample disclosure of relevant, material facts," including that "the research is being paid for by a political entity" without specifically naming the Clinton campaign and DNC. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the application and commented on the condition of anonymity.
The Page FISA application also mentions another suspect in the Russia probe – former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. "The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016," the memo said.
Officials familiar with the Russia probe have said the FBI pursued multiple distinct investigative lines that month involving Russia, including inquiries involving Page, Papadopoulos and intelligence intercepts.
According to the memo, Bill Priestap, an FBI executive, said the work of corroborating Steele's allegations against Page was in its "infancy" at the time of the first FISA application. And the memo said McCabe told the committee in December that "no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] without the Steele dossier information."
But another committee official said the memo's claim that McCabe said no warrant would have been sought but for Steele's information "is a blatant mischaracterization" and that the full facts are laid out in a Democratic response memo that has not yet been made public. Republicans on the House committee voted down a proposal to release the Democrats' rebuttal.
After the FBI terminated Steele as a source, an internal FBI report assessed that Steele's information had been "only minimally corroborated," the memo said.
Current and former British officials who know Steele lauded his record, noting that he had provided vital information to the U.S. and British governments in the past. His former boss at the British Secret Intelligence Service, Richard Dearlove, recalled Steele as a "good person of high integrity" with a sophisticated knowledge of Russia. After Steele left government service in 2009, he became known as "one of the go-to people on Russia in the commercial sector," Dearlove said.
Steele and officials from Fusion GPS declined to comment.
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The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.