- 25 февраля, 00:20
- POLITICO. Top Stories
The FBI team investigating the 2016 Trump campaign's contacts with Russians had already opened inquiries into multiple people connected to the campaign when it received a controversial dossier alleging illicit ties between then-candidate Donald Trump and the Kremlin, a Democratic memo released by the House Intelligence Committee revealed Saturday.
The dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, wasn't provided to the FBI's counterintelligence team until mid-September 2016, according to the memo. By then, the counterintelligence investigation into Trump's campaign was seven weeks old. "The FBI had already opened sub-inquiries into ... individuals linked to the Trump campaign," according to the findings of the committee's nine Democrats.
The committee posted the heavily redacted 10-page document Saturday after weeks of wrangling between the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, and Justice Department officials over the contours of classified material he hoped to release.
It's unclear whether the memo was declassified by Trump or whether the redactions advised by the FBI and Justice Department omitted any remaining classified details in the Democratic document. But it opens a new partisan front in a battle that has consumed the House Intelligence Committee and has all but derailed its efforts to probe Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
That probe has stalled even as special counsel Robert Mueller's criminal investigation into the Russian scheme has gained momentum, most starkly with last week's indictment of 13 Russians for mounting a complex operation to steal Americans' identities, stage campaign rallies in the United States and run a social media campaign that primarily supported Trump and opposed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump on Saturday called the memo a "bust," tweeting: "The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!"
The Democratic memorandum was meant as a counterweight to a GOP memo that Trump declassified three weeks earlier, claiming that FBI officials misled a secret court to obtain a warrant to spy on Trump camp foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The Republican memo argued that the so-called Steele Dossier was at the heart of the FBI's request for a surveillance warrant on Page — and that the agents who sought it failed to disclose to a federal judge that Steele's work was financed by the campaign of Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
The Democratic memo, though, reveals that the FBI did inform the judge of Steele's political intentions — that he was "likely looking for information that could be used to discredit" Trump. And FBI officials indicated that Steele himself was not advised that the work he was doing was on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
Trump argued on Twitter on Saturday: "Dem Memo: FBI did not disclose who the clients were — the Clinton Campaign and the DNC. Wow!"
The memo also reveals that the FBI’s application to spy on Page — and three subsequent renewals — were approved by four different judges, all appointed by Republican presidents.
In addition, the memo suggests the FBI corroborated elements of Steele’s dossier pertaining to Page when it sought renewals. It also emphasizes that the bureau didn’t rely on the dossier’s most salacious allegations to obtain a warrant to spy on Page.
The Democratic memo indicates that the FBI’s fact-finding contradicted Page’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in November about his meetings with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. The passage on elements of the dossier that may have been corroborated is heavily redacted, but it alludes to Page's contacts with Russian officials on his 2016 trips to Moscow.
In a statement, Schiff said: “The Democratic response memo released today should put to rest any concerns that the American people might have as to the conduct of the FBI, the Justice Department and the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court]."
"Our extensive review of the initial [surveillance] application and three subsequent renewals failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement and instead revealed that both the FBI and DOJ made extensive showings to justify all four requests," he said.
At the time of the memo's release, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) was addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of conservative activists, in Maryland. Nunes has been at the center of the debate over the Republican-led memo, which Trump approved for release on Feb. 2.
From the stage, Nunes said Democrats are "colluding with part of the government to cover up" the FBI's alleged abuses.
"We think it is clear that the Democrats are not not only trying to cover it up, but are colluding with parts of the government to help cover this up," Nunes said. "As you read it, you will see personal attacks on myself and chairman [Rep. Trey] Gowdy with a lot of interesting things that sound really bad, like a lot that has been happening with this Russian investigation over the course of the last year, but what you're not going to see is anything that actually rejects what was in our memo."
In a later statement, Nunes said: “The American people now clearly understand that the FBI used political dirt paid for by the Democratic Party to spy on an American citizen from the Republican Party."
"Furthermore, the FISA court was misled about Mr. Page’s past interactions with the FBI in which he helped build a case against Russian operatives in America who were brought to justice," Nunes said. "It defies belief that the Department of Justice and FBI failed to provide information to a secret court that they had provided to an open federal court regarding their past interactions with Mr. Page.”
In Nunes' point-by-point rebuttal of the Democratic memo, he takes issue with the Democrats' claim that Steele's reporting was corroborated by the FBI. Though Democrats said "multiple independent sources" had backed up parts of Steele's dossier pertaining to Page, the most damaging aspects "remain unconfirmed," the committee Republicans noted.
Steele, the Republicans said, was the only source suggesting Page met in Moscow in July 2016 with a top Russian energy executive with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — Igor Sechin — and senior Russian government official Igor Diveykin.
"At the time of the initial [surveillance] application, all of the Steele dossier’s specific claims about Page — including that he met with Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin in Moscow in July 2016 — were uncorroborated by any independent source, and they remain unconfirmed," the Republicans said.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Democrats' memo "attempts to undercut the president politically" but said he supported its release "in the interest of transparency."
"This politically driven document fails to answer serious concerns raised by the Majority’s memorandum about the use of partisan opposition research from one candidate, loaded with uncorroborated allegations, as a basis to ask a court to approve surveillance of a former associate of another candidate, at the height of a presidential campaign," Sanders said.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement: “The speaker has called for transparency and is glad this memo was released with appropriate redactions to protect intelligence sources and methods. The speaker has read the memo, and despite the new assertions by the minority, there remain civil liberty concerns about the way this particular FISA application was carried out. The speaker continues to have concerns with partisan political research being used for law enforcement and counter-intelligence decision making, and he believes the government must do a better job providing a full picture to the court when applying for FISA warrants.”
Based on previously classified information, the Nunes memo contains allegations that top officials at the FBI and Department of Justice officials abused their abilities to conduct surveillance by relying on the disputed Steele dossier as evidence for an application to spy on a Trump campaign adviser. The push to release the memo became a cause célèbre among conservatives.
Schiff and fellow Democrats had complained that Nunes' memo cherrypicked information and gave an inaccurate portrayal on how federal officials sought and secured a special warrant to spy on Page.
Brent D. Griffiths contributed to this report.