- By Josh Dawsey, Devlin Barrett, Karoun Demirjian The Washington Post
The long-simmering feud between President Donald Trump and the Justice Department erupted into open conflict Wednesday when the FBI publicly challenged the president's expected release of a contentious and classified memo related to the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
In a rare unsigned statement, the FBI cited "grave concerns" with inaccuracies and omissions in the four-page memo, which was written by House Republicans and alleges abuses at the Justice Department connected to secret surveillance orders. Trump has told advisers that the memo could benefit him by undercutting the special counsel's investigation and allow him to oust senior Justice Department officials - and that he wants it released soon, something that could happen as early as Thursday.
"We have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy," the FBI said.
The extraordinary statement pits the nation's top federal law enforcement agency against a commander in chief who already has fired one FBI director and has repeatedly expressed a desire to remove the attorney general and others connected to the Russia investigation. That probe, led by special counsel Robert Mueller III, is aimed in part at determining whether any Trump associates coordinated with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, and investigating any related issues.
The FBI's public warning came after several days of failed attempts by FBI Director Christopher Wray and other Justice Department officials to convince the president and his senior staff in private meetings that the memo should be blocked because it poses a risk to national security.
Trump was captured on video Tuesday night after his State of the Union address telling a South Carolina congressman that he was angry about the memo's conclusions and would "100 percent" release it. "Don't worry about it," Trump told Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who was urging its disclosure.
Wray has repeatedly tried to warn the White House against releasing the disputed document - including a visit to the White House on Monday afternoon with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to lobby Chief of Staff John Kelly. Later that night, Wray called Kelly again, but Kelly did not give ground, saying the president was inclined to release the memo, according to people familiar with the call who requested anonymity to discuss the conversation. Justice Department officials have been leery of talking to Trump about the memo, given the ongoing Russia inquiry, these people said.
Trump wants the memo released in upcoming days, according to senior White House officials and advisers who said the president sees it as key to making changes at the Justice Department - particularly pushing out Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller's investigation and who Trump regularly derides in mocking terms. One senior administration official said that the White House had already heard and dismissed the FBI's arguments and that the memo could be released as early as Thursday.
Officials said the FBI issued the statement knowing that it would probably not affect the decision. Within the FBI, many are resigned to the prospect that it will be made public soon but want to make clear their strong disagreement with the document's claims and offer at least a general rebuttal, according to people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The unsigned statement is likely to further exacerbate tensions between Trump and senior officials at the Justice Department. While raging about the special counsel's investigation over the past year, the president has fired FBI Director James Comey; shamed and sought to oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions; excoriated FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who stepped aside this week; and talked repeatedly about shoving aside Rosenstein.
Few things have frustrated Trump as much as the law enforcement agencies he cannot fully control. Allies say he is upset that he can't control "my guys" at the "Trump Justice Department" and that no one seems particularly loyal to him. He has also broken long-held protocols by directly calling Justice Department officials, and instructed his chief of staff to do the same, without the White House counsel on the phone.
Rather than lessen his trouble, these and other actions have opened new avenues in Mueller's probe, which has included questions for witnesses about potential obstruction of justice and the president's behavior.
The memo in dispute was written by staffers for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., earlier in January after the panel obtained documents related to a controversial dossier of allegations concerning Trump and his purported ties to Kremlin officials.
The memo alleges that the British former spy who wrote the dossier, Christopher Steele, passed bad information to the FBI — though people familiar with the document said it does not determine whether he did so intentionally or by mistake. The memo alleges that the information was used in an application to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, according to people familiar with the matter. Officials familiar with the Page case have said Steele's information represented a small part of the secret court document.
Late Wednesday night, panel ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in a letter accused Nunes of making "material changes" to the memo before sending it to the White House — meaning the memo panel members voted to make public is not the same one as the president is presently reviewing.
Schiff accused Nunes of "deliberately misleading" the committee, and demanded that Nunes withdraw the version he sent to the White House, insisting that "there is no longer a valid basis for the White House to review the altered documents" and approve their public release. Nunes could not be reached for a comment Wednesday night.
It is highly unusual for the White House and the FBI to be so publicly at odds over a matter of national security, and it was unclear what impact the disagreement might have on the standing of Wray, Rosenstein or Sessions.
Trump has told advisers that Wray should make personnel changes more quickly at the FBI, but they have urged the president to have patience. Wray is a favorite of Trump adviser Chris Christie and represented the former New Jersey governor in an investigation over bridge lane closings for political retribution.
Senior FBI officials say the GOP memo's allegations of abuse are inaccurate and unfair, but they also believe the FBI would not be able to effectively counter those claims, because many of the details are classified, according to current and former officials. And they have argued to Kelly and other White House officials, including White House counsel Donald McGahn, that such a release would set a bad precedent.
"The FBI takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI," the statement said, referring to the court that oversees use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to ensure the continuing integrity of the FISA process."
The senior Justice Department officials have grown concerned that the White House's process, which is supposed to include a review by lawyers and National Security Council officials, is not sufficiently thorough.
"No one here is going to make a decision that jeopardizes national security," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday morning on CNN. "There's always a chance" the memo won't be released, she said.
Trump allies have said for weeks the president will want the document released and that it is only a matter of time. Later Wednesday morning, Kelly told Fox News radio that the memo will "be released here pretty quick."
The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday to make the document available to the public after Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and other conservatives lobbied Trump on the memo's release during the government shutdown fight.
Trump supporters say that Justice Department officials are simply trying to protect their own controversial decisions and that abuses deserve to be aired. Nunes called FBI objections to the memo's release "spurious."
"It's clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign," Nunes said in a statement. "Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again."
The Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has accused Nunes of orchestrating an "effort to circle the wagons around the White House and distract from the Russia probe."
Schiff has suggested Nunes coordinated with the Trump administration to release the memo, saying that "it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that this is anything but doing the bidding of the White House," according to a transcript, made public Wednesday, of the committee's closed-door meeting Monday night.
When Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked during the same meeting whether Nunes had coordinated with the White House to release the memo, the chairman said, "As far as I know, no." When pressed whether his staff had done so, Nunes refused to answer.
Sanders said in the CNN interview that Trump was "not aware of any conversation or coordination" between Nunes and the White House on the production or release of the memo. But she did not rule out the possibility, saying, "I just don't know the answer."