House Republicans are sharply divided over how to handle a classified memo that President Donald Trump’s allies say contains explosive details of misconduct by senior FBI and Justice Department officials.
The memo, compiled by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes and fellow Republicans on the panel, claims that senior federal officials abused a secret surveillance program, commonly known as FISA, to target the Trump campaign. It also alleges other federal law enforcement wrongdoing that some Republicans insist should lead to the firings of senior officials.
But while several Republicans have publicly cited the document as cause for alarm—triggering an aggressive Twitter campaign that has featured dozens of supportive tweets by the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.—they have not detailed its specific allegations.
That has prompted Democrats to allege a smear campaign. The House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, calls the memo a misleading ploy to discredit federal probes into 2016 Russian election meddling and ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.
“It’s designed to push out a destructive narrative and further the attacks on the FBI. It’s basically a burn-the-house down strategy to protect the president,” he said.
The main debate in the House centered not around the memo’s secret allegations, but whether the classified document can be publicly released without compromising FBI sources and methods.
“You don’t want the enemy to know that,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), an intelligence committee member who supports allowing his colleagues — but not the public — to see the full document. “This is not to protect the guilty. It’s to protect the innocent.”
Other members of the panel were similarly cautious. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), said that releasing the complete memo would be “dangerous.” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said he’d only be comfortable if a “scrubbed” or “unclassified” version of the memo were released. And King said he’d support a “redacted” version of the report to inform the public of their findings.
But several of the president’s top congressional allies—who were already harsh critics of the FBI and the Justice Department—described the memo’s findings in dire terms and said it was urgent to reveal to Americans.
“I think that this will not end just with firings. I believe there are people who will go to jail,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in an interview on Fox News.
“I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen. I have long said it is worse than Watergate,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Several GOP lawmakers came close to describing the memo’s classified contents Friday, saying it describes purported abuses of the FISA—or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—program by Obama administration officials, mishandling of a tool to “unmask” the identities Americans swept up in intercepts and mishandling of a disputed dossier that alleged criminal ties between Trump and Russia.
Nunes and other Republicans have previously alleged that Obama officials wrongfully unmasked Trump associates for political reasons, though they haven’t substantiated those claims. Obama officials insist they did nothing wrong.The House GOP push has spawned a trending hashtag on Twitter, #releasethememo that conservative media hyped throughout the day Friday.
By Friday evening, Trump Jr., had tweeted about the memo 37 times since the previous day. Fox News host Sean Hannity opened his Thursday night prime-time show with a discussion of the still-secret memo, which he treated as a bombshell that could lead to the end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion and potential obstruction of justice by the president or his allies.
There appeared to be darker elements at work as well. Business Insider reported that the hashtag assigned to the memo debate has been fueled by Twitter accounts linked to Kremlin propaganda. Wikileaks, the website run by Julian Assange that intelligence officials say was complicit in the Kremlin’s 2016 interference campaign, has offered a $1 million reward for a leaked copy of the memo.
In an instance of strange bedfellows, Republicans also picked up support from the ACLU and the former NSA contractor-turned-fugitive Edward Snowden. Both tweeted support for releasing the memo, saying that it could inform a debate about Congress’s reauthorization of government surveillance powers contained in the FISA law. (Congress has since passed the measure, which Trump signed into law Friday.)
Conservative lawmakers hope the furor will help pressure House Speaker Paul Ryan to invoke a little-known House process that allows the public disclosure of a classified document.
Ryan declined to respond to a shouted question Friday on whether he’d read the memo, and a source familiar with his discussion with conservatives on Thursday said he deferred questions about the document’s release to Nunes.
Nunes hasn’t indicated whether he’ll call for a vote, and he appeared to be waiting for more members of the House to review the text.
Asked about lawmakers who have described the contents of the memo, King said lawmakers have to “be careful what you say” since the substance remains classified. In fact, he said, that discussion was at the heart of internal discussions by the intelligence committee about whether to release the memo at all.
“It was enough of a fight to get this out” to Congress, he said. “It was a pretty heated debate.”One senior GOP senator, asked about his House colleagues’ alarm over the memo’s contents, sounded a more cautious line.
As he emerged from the House’s secure meeting room Friday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) declined to say whether he’d actually seen the document. But when asked about the characterization by some rank-and-file Republicans that the memo’s contents are “shocking,” Cornyn replied: “I think there’s a lot of paranoia around here when it comes to that topic.”
The lawmakers calling for a the release of the document have pointed to an obscure House rule that permits the intelligence committee to release classified information deemed to be in the public interest.
Under that process, the committee must notify Trump, who would have five days to decide whether to object. If he does, the committee may refer the matter to the full House, which would then meet in a “closed” session, out of public view, to debate and vote on the request.
Other than Schiff, Democrats have said little about the GOP memo, though it was unclear how many had viewed the document by Friday afternoon.
Schiff said he opposes the report’s release because the public would not be able to see highly classified source material on which the report is based, which he said would help identify “distortions” and inaccuracies.
Republicans, Schiff said, are “doing their best to tear apart the FBI to protect the president and I think it’s a terrible disservice to the country.”
A broader group of House intelligence committee Democrats called the concise memo—which they dismissed as “talking points”—an intentional attempt to mislead lawmakers because they’ll never see the underlying documents that Republicans used to form their analysis.
“The documents that supposedly inform these talking points are highly classified,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “And they will not be made public, making it impossible for the few Members who have seen the documents to explain the flaws and misstatements contained within the talking points without disclosing our most closely held intelligence sources and methods. This is by design.”