UPDATED: White House declassifies top-secret memo on Russia probe; Blumenthal calls president 'desperate'
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump declassified a top-secret congressional memo Friday and suggested it proved the investigation of his presidential campaign and Russia was fatally flawed from the start. Democrats said the document did nothing to clear him or his campaign, and the FBI called the memo inaccurate and incomplete.
Butting heads just as they had before the memo's release, Trump and his critics stuck to the positions they had staked out in the weeks leading up to the hotly disputed release of the memo prepared by Republicans on the House intelligence committee. The memo makes their case — and Trump's — that politically motivated abuses in the early stages of the FBI's investigation made it worse than worthless.
The Democrats, having none of it, said the four-page memo merely cherry-picks Republican talking points in an effort to smear law enforcement and undercut the current federal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, said the GOP document "mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information" and its release "will do long-term damage to the intelligence community and our law enforcement agencies."
The memo's central premise is that the FBI relied excessively on anti-Trump research funded by Democrats in seeking a warrant to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign associate and that federal authorities concealed the full details of who was paying for the information.
The disclosure of the document is extraordinary since it involves details about surveillance of Americans, national security information the government regards as among its most highly classified. Its release is likely to further escalate an intra-government conflict that has divided the White House and Trump's hand-picked law enforcement leaders.
Trump, who lashed out at the FBI and Justice Department Friday morning, refused to express confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and is mentioned by name in the memo.
Asked if he was more likely to fire Rosenstein, and if he still had confidence in him, Trump retorted, "You figure that one out."
A senior White House official said later the administration expects Rosenstein to remain in his job.
Trump has been telling confidants he believed the memo would validate his concerns that the FBI and Justice Department conspired against him. Though the document had been classified since it deals with warrants obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the White House declassified it Friday and sent it to the intelligence committee chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, for immediate release.
The development also comes amid an ongoing effort by Trump and congressional Republicans to discredit the investigation by Mueller that focuses not only on whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia but also on whether the president sought to obstruct justice. Republicans seized on the memo's allegations to argue that the FBI's investigation was politically biased.
The memo does not address obstruction questions that have led Mueller to express interest in interviewing Trump. But it does reveal the FBI investigation actually began in July 2016, months before the warrant was even sought, based on information involving a separate Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, who has already pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Mueller inherited the probe in May 2017. Four people have so far been charged in his investigation.
Trump said Friday of the information in the memo: "I think it's a disgrace. What's going on in this country, I think it's a disgrace."
Earlier in the day, he tweeted: "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. Rank & File are great people."
The memo offered the first government confirmation that the FBI in October 2016 obtained a secret surveillance warrant on a Trump campaign associate, Carter Page, on the basis that agents believed he might be an agent of a foreign power — Russia. That warrant was signed off on multiple times, including by Rosenstein.
In a statement, Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser and came on the FBI radar in 2013 as part of a separate counterintelligence probe, said, "The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America's democracy."
The memo asserts that opposition research conducted by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, "formed an essential part" of the initial application to receive the warrant. It's unclear how much or what information Steele collected was included in the application, or how much has been corroborated. Steele's research into Trump and Russia was compiled into a series of memos, or a dossier, containing salacious allegations.
The FBI routinely relies on multiple sources of information when it obtains surveillance warrants. And the memo makes clear that the FBI believed there was probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power and a judge agreed — four times over.
The Republicans argue that top Justice and FBI officials concealed relevant information from the court, namely the full details of Steele's motivations and funding.
Steele's opposition research effort was initially funded by the conservative Washington Free Beacon. It was later picked up by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee through a Washington law firm. The memo says the FBI cut ties with Steele, a longtime source, for an improper disclosure to the media about his relationship with the bureau.
Democrats pushed back on multiple assertions from the memo, saying it was not accurate that the FBI had withheld from the court information about Steele's potential political motivations or those of the people who hired him. They say the memo ignores the fact the investigation did not begin with Steele.
Released almost immediately after the White House cleared it, the memo was immediately criticized by Connecticut Democrats as a dangerous effort to distract from and discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 elections.
"This despicably wrong decision is a desperate attempt by President Trump and his Capitol Hill lackeys to smear the special counsel – and it will fail," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. "This document changes nothing. It regurgitates now well-worn and widely discredited Republican talking points."
"There is no other way to explain President Trump's action today other than as an attack on the special counsel, the FBI, Deputy AG Rosenstein, and ultimately, the rule of law," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who is recuperating from hip replacement surgery.
Courtney said writers of the memo "cherry picked" information to attack the warrant application.
"At the end of the day ... a federal judge approved it based on facts presented by the FBI, not a political agenda," Courtney said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called the memo "garbage evidence" and said it "seems to do more to confirm the legitimacy of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign than to undermine it."
Evidence of that, Murphy said, is that the memo confirms the counterintelligence investigation began with former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulous, well before the FISA warrant was granted on Page, "who has been under FBI investigation since 2013 when the Russians attempted to recruit him as a spy."
"It is clear from this memo that Chairman Nunes is serving up garbage evidence to provide cover for the president to fire either Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in order to scuttle the investigation before it reaches the truth," Murphy said.
Schiff, the top Democrat, said the memo had "cherry-picked" information from Andrew McCabe, who stepped down as FBI deputy director this week. The memo describes him as having told the committee that no surveillance warrant would have been sought without the dossier.
The memo release escalates a clash with the man Trump picked to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, after firing James Comey as agency director. Wray had warned the White House that the declassification and release could set a dangerous precedent.
Comey weighed in on Twitter, calling the memo "dishonest and misleading" and saying it had "inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs."
The Connecticut Mirror contributed to this report.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin, Catherine Lucey, Matthew Daly and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.
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