Answers About the Secret Memo on the Trump-Russia Inquiry

Representative Michael K. Conaway, Republican of Texas, spoke to reporters after the House Intelligence Committee voted on Monday to release a secret memo on the Russia investigation.

This article was updated on Feb. 2, 2018. For further coverage of the memo, read here »

WASHINGTON — House Republicans released a secret Intelligence Committee memo on Friday that accuses senior officials at the F.B.I. and the Justice Department of abuses in the early stages of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

Democrats say the memo is a partisan attempt to undermine the inquiry, and an assistant attorney general, Stephen E. Boyd, said that releasing it without an official review process would be “extraordinarily reckless.” In an unusual public statement, the F.B.I. said it had “grave concerns” about releasing the memo.

Here are answers to some basic questions.

The memo is a short summary of some of the intelligence used to support a government request to secretly surveil Carter Page, the former Trump campaign associate.

In order to obtain the warrant, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department had to show a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that they had probable cause to believe that Mr. Page was acting as a Russian agent. The memo describes four applications to surveil Mr. Page. The original request was made on Oct. 21, 2016; investigators have to seek approval to extend the surveillance every 90 days.

The memo’s main argument is that the government, in seeking the warrant, did not disclose that information in the application came from research paid for by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. President Trump has said that the Democrats’ financial ties to the research support his belief that the Democrats are behind the Russia controversy.

The man behind the research is a former British spy, Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier of explosive, unsubstantiated information about Mr. Trump and Russia. He told the F.B.I. that he was working for interests opposed to Mr. Trump, and the Republicans question whether the intelligence court judge was misled about Mr. Steele’s credibility.

Some Republican lawmakers say the memo reveals that the F.B.I. was biased against Mr. Trump and misused its authorities in its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“In the case of Carter Page, the government had at least four independent opportunities before the F.I.S.C. to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts,” the memo said, referring to the intelligence court that approves these applications. “The application does not mention Steele was ultimately working on behalf of — and paid by — the D.N.C. and Clinton campaign, or that the F.B.I. had separately authorized payment to Steele for the same information.”

But the claims of bias are undercut by another piece of information in the committee memo: that the top official at the Justice Department who is overseeing the Russia investigation, Rod J. Rosenstein, signed one of the warrants to continue the surveillance of Mr. Page. Mr. Rosenstein is a Republican and was appointed by Mr. Trump.

Democrats say Republicans cherry-picked facts to create their own narrative — one that shows that the government acted improperly in its application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant and that senior officials at the F.B.I. and the Justice Department were leading a biased investigation into the president.

The Republican memo was written by staff members on the House Intelligence Committee, whose chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, is a Trump loyalist and was on Mr. Trump’s presidential transition team. Mr. Nunes has previously claimed government abuses against Mr. Trump and his associates.

Democrats say the Republicans are trying to distract from the continuing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which the president has called a “witch hunt.” The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has already brought charges against four of Mr. Trump’s former aides. Mr. Mueller has told the president’s lawyers that he will probably seek to interview Mr. Trump.

The Democrats say Republicans are trying to protect the president at any cost.

“The sole purpose of the Republican document is to circle the wagons around the White House and insulate the president,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Friday. Mr. Schiff said Mr. Nunes had refused to say whether the Republican staff members who wrote the memo coordinated with the White House.

The Democrats drafted their own memo to rebut the Republican narrative, but Republicans have so far blocked its release.

Mr. Schiff said the premise of the Republican memo was that the F.B.I. and the Justice Department “corruptly sought a FISA warrant on a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, and deliberately misled the court as part of a systematic abuse of the FISA process.”

Mr. Schiff said that simply was not true. “The F.B.I. had good reason to be concerned about Carter Page and would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA warrant,” he said.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said the Republican memo distorted intelligence to “discredit” national security agencies and Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

“President Trump has surrendered his constitutional responsibility as commander in chief by releasing highly classified and distorted intelligence,” Ms. Pelosi said in a statement on Friday. “By not protecting intelligence sources and methods, he just sent his friend Putin a bouquet.”

The debate had morphed into something of a competition between the two parties over which was being more transparent about sensitive intelligence matters that are opaque by design.

Republicans say they are making the public aware of government abuses and biases against Mr. Trump.

“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,” Mr. Nunes said in a statement on Friday. Mr. Nunes added that he hoped “this alarming series of events” would lead to reforms, even though he recently pushed for the renewal of FISA authorities.

“Releasing this memo is the first step to rooting out corruption in our bureaucratic agencies once and for all,” Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in a Twitter post on Friday. “The American people deserved to know its contents and I’m glad we were able to get this into the public sphere.”

Representative Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, has said that the contents of the memo do not indict the F.B.I. or impugn Mr. Mueller’s investigation or the deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein.

When the government wants to get a warrant under the FISA law, applications are made to a special court. These applications are highly classified and voluminous, sometimes 50 to 60 pages, according to John E. McLaughlin, a former C.I.A. deputy director. The deputy attorney general would typically approve this type of request.

It’s unlikely a judge would approve a warrant after reading a few pages of information, so the Republicans’ memo does not provide all of the information the judge reviewed. In some cases, the intelligence judge will tell government lawyers requesting a warrant that they need to show more evidence to support the application. Government lawyers often add to their applications until a judge is satisfied that the standard, known as probable cause, is met.

The Republicans’ memo, which did not include all the details from the FISA applications, showed that the government went through the usual approval process. Mr. Page was previously on the radar of intelligence agencies for years when Mr. Trump named him to be one of his foreign policy advisers in 2016. Mr. Page had visited Moscow in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December when investigators obtained the warrant.

Congress — in particular the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — has a mandate to oversee the activities of the executive branch, including American intelligence agencies, in part to ensure that intelligence is not being used for political gain.



The Nunes Memo vs. the Schiff Memo

There are now two memos agitating Washington. One from Representative Devin Nunes and one from Representative Adam B. Schiff. Feeling confused? You’re not alone.

It’s a tale of two memos. One from Republican Representative Devin Nunes. And one from Democratic Representative Adam Schiff. First, the Nunes memo. In 2016, the F.B.I. and Justice Department applied for a warrant to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser. The now declassified Nunes memo asserts that officials relied on information from former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that Democrats had financed the research. Trump’s allies say the Nunes memo shows that the F.B.I.‘s Russia investigation was politically biased in its early stages. President Trump cleared the way for its release. Democrats, including Adam Schiff, have proposed their own currently classified memo at the same time so the public can judge both together. It apparently explains why various points in the Nunes memo are wrong or misleading. For example, sources say the information from Steele was only one thread in a tapestry of evidence from various sources that the Nunes memo ignored, exaggerating its relative importance. But Republicans made the Nunes memo public without simultaneously making the rebuttal Schiff memo public, too. It seems to be an attempt to shift focus away from the Russia investigation itself and toward what they’re trying to argue is the real scandal: the investigators.

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There are now two memos agitating Washington. One from Representative Devin Nunes and one from Representative Adam B. Schiff. Feeling confused? You’re not alone.

“We have crossed a deeply regrettable line in this committee, where for the first time in the 10 years or so that I’ve been on the committee, there was a vote to politicize the declassification process of intelligence, and potentially compromise sources and methods,” Mr. Schiff said on Monday after the panel voted to release the memo.

That the House invoked a rule for the first time to release the memo underscores how unusual a predicament this is for members of the House Intelligence Committee.

When the Intelligence Committees become political, oversight of the intelligence agencies becomes “just about impossible,” said David M. Barrett, a professor of political science at Villanova University who has written a book on the C.I.A. and Congress. “Intelligence becomes just another political football.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting its own investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But the panel has not had the type of openly political clashes that have marked the House committee’s inquiry.

Mr. Page applauded the memo and its contents.

“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,” Mr. Page said in a statement on Friday.

Mr. Trump spoke briefly about the memo and said, “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that.”

Earlier on Friday, Mr. Trump said in a Twitter post, “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!”

Even as Mr. Trump tried to show support of “rank and file” agents, the attacks on the F.B.I. and the Justice Department raised concerns about trust in America’s law enforcement and intelligence officials.

The president of the F.B.I. Agents Association, Thomas O’Connor, said in a statement that F.B.I. agents continued to serve the American people.

“FBI Special Agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission,” Mr. O’Connor said in a Twitter post.

Democrats and some Republicans worry what the potential damage to intelligence sources and methods will be now that the memo has been released. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said attacks on the F.B.I. served the Kremlin, not Americans.

“The latest attacks on the F.B.I. and Department of Justice serve no American interests — no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s,” Mr. McCain said in a statement on Friday.

James B. Comey, whom Mr. Trump fired in May as F.B.I. director, setting in motion the appointment of a special counsel to manage the Russia investigation, called the memo “dishonest and misleading.”

“That’s it? 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,” Mr. Comey wrote in a Twitter post. “For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”

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