By Devlin Barrett, Karoun Demirjian and Josh Dawsey / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — A GOP memo declassified on Friday charges senior law enforcement officials with manipulating a foreign intelligence court in order to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser — contested accusations that intensified an ongoing battle between the White House and Republican lawmakers on one side, and the FBI and the Justice Department on the other.
Democrats warned President Donald Trump not to try to use the memo’s contents as a justification for firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or other officials overseeing an ongoing probe into possible coordination between Trump associates and agents of the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. Asked after the memo’s release if he might fire Rosenstein, Trump told reporters: “You figure that one out.”
Trump approved release of the memo without redactions Friday morning. “I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that.”
The congressional inquiry that led to the memo is “an issue of great importance for the country, and concerns have been raised about the department’s performance,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “I have great confidence in the men and women of this department. But no department is perfect. … I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth.”
The FBI has said it has “grave concerns” that the contents of the memo leave out important details and create an inaccurate, unfair portrait of its work.
Former FBI director James Comey reacted by tweeting: “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. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”
The four-page memo, written by Republican staffers for the House Intelligence Committee, said its findings “raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain [Justice Department] and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).” It cites “a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process,” a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The memo alleges that a surveillance warrant was obtained and renewed on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, with information from an individual with an anti-Trump agenda.
It accuses officials who approved the surveillance applications — a group that includes Rosenstein, Comey, his former deputy Andrew McCabe and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates — of signing off on court surveillance requests that omitted key facts about the political motivations of the person supplying some of the information, Christopher Steele, a former intelligence officer in Britain.
The memo says Steele “was suspended and then terminated as an FBI source for what the FBI defines as the most serious of violations — an unauthorized disclosure to the media of his relationship with the FBI.” The memo argues that Steele’s contacts with reporters in the fall of 2016 “violated the cardinal rule of source handling — maintaining confidentiality — and demonstrated that Steele had become a less than reliable source for the FBI.”
The memo also said the court application “extensively” cites a Yahoo News article about Page, but incorrectly assesses that Steele did not directly provide information to Yahoo News — suggesting that the Justice Department may have counted a news story about Steele’s claims as a form of confirmation of those claims.
The government website housing the memo — docs.house.gov — crashed soon after the document was posted, apparently overwhelmed by users clamoring to read it.
The memo is not an intelligence document and reflects classified information the Republican members of the committee gathered and summarized, which Democrats, the FBI and Justice Department have criticized as incomplete and misleading. Law enforcement officials have said they often rely on information from people with grudges or agendas to begin investigations, but agents are expected to check the accuracy of any claims before seeking a warrant.
Current and former law enforcement officials said before the release that a major concern inside the FBI is that the rules governing classified information would impede their ability to respond to the memo’s accusations once it became public.
The Justice Department and the FBI did not immediately comment Friday.
Page, the subject of the warrant, praised the memo’s release. “The brave and assiduous oversight by congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of power represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy,” he said.
In September 2016, according to the memo, Steele admitted that he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president” in a conversation with Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official.
At the time, Steele was researching possible Trump ties to Russia on behalf of Fusion GPS, a Washington, D.C., firm that also hired Ohr’s wife to do Russia-related research. Fusion GPS was initially hired in late 2015 by a conservative website funded by a major GOP donor who wanted research done on Trump’s business history.
Then, in spring 2016, Fusion GPS was hired by a lawyer representing the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to continue researching Trump. After the Democrats starting paying Fusion GPS, the firm hired Steele.
The memo charges that law enforcement officials vouched for Steele as someone who had provided valuable information in an earlier corruption probe involving FIFA, the world soccer organization, but that they did not tell the court about his political views regarding Trump.
“While the FISA application relied on Steele’s past record of credible reporting on other unrelated matters, it ignored or concealed his anti-Trump financial and ideological motivations,” the memo states.
Bill Priestap, an FBI executive, said the work of corroborating Steele’s allegations against Page was in its “infancy” at the time of the first FISA application, and McCabe told the committee in December that “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] without the Steele dossier information,” according to the memo.
After the FBI terminated Steele as a source, an internal FBI report assessed that Steele’s information had been “only minimally corroborated,” the memo said.
But another committee official said the memo’s claim that McCabe said no warrant would have been sought but for Steele’s information “is a blatant mischaracterization” and that the full facts are laid out in a Democratic response memo, which has not yet been made public. Republicans on the House committee voted down a proposal to release the Democrats’ rebuttal.
The top Democrats in Congress sent a letter Friday warning the president against using the memo to justify firing Rosenstein “in an effort to corruptly influence or impede special counsel [Robert ] Mueller’s investigation.”
“We would consider such an unwarranted action as an attempt to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation,” wrote top Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York. “Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre,” they wrote, referencing a seminal event in the Watergate scandal when President Richard Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating him.
Current and former British officials who know Steele lauded his record, noting that he had provided vital information to the U.S. and British governments in the past.
His former boss at the British Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Richard Dearlove, recalled Steele as a “good person of high integrity” with a sophisticated knowledge of Russia. After Steele left government service in 2009, he became known as “one of the go-to people on Russia in the commercial sector,” Dearlove said.
In the British Parliament, questions about Steele’s integrity have rankled some members.
“We owe him a debt of gratitude for presenting the threat of the [Vladimir] Putin regime,” said Ben Bradshaw a Labour Party member of Parliament who has called in recent months for deeper inquiries into Russia’s role in British and European elections. “It was Chris’s dossier that caused me to raise questions” about Russian activities in the West in the first place, he said. “It was a game changer.”
Steele and officials from Fusion GPS declined to comment.
The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.