President Trump withholds Democratic rebuttal memo to Nunes memo

I told you not to hold your breath on President Trump authorizing the release of the Democratic rebuttal memo to the Nunes memo. Trump will not release Democrats’ memo on FBI surveillance:

President Trump will not immediately agree to release a Democratic memo rebutting GOP claims that the FBI abused its surveillance authority as it probed Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but he has directed the Justice Department to work with lawmakers so some form of the document could be made public, the White House counsel said Friday night.

In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee, White House counsel Donald McGahn wrote that the Justice Department had identified portions of the Democrats’ memo that it believed “would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests” if disclosed. McGahn included in his note a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray supporting that claim.

McGahn wrote in his letter that Trump was “inclined to declassify” the Democrats’ memo, but given its sensitive passages, he was “unable to do so.” McGahn wrote that the president had instructed the Justice Department to work with Congress to mitigate those risks.

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Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement: “The President’s double standard when it comes to transparency is appalling. The rationale for releasing the Nunes memo, transparency, vanishes when it could show information that’s harmful to him. Millions of Americans are asking one simple question: what is he hiding?” He was referring to the GOP memo, which was produced by the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

Aaron Blake of the Washington Post explains that the administration said it would treat the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic rebuttal the same as the Nunes memo. It didn’t. The White House’s broken promise on the Democratic memo:

After the House Intelligence Committee voted this week to release a Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assured us that the White House would be evenhanded. “As stated many times,” Sanders said, “the administration will follow the same process and procedure with this memorandum from the minority as it did last week, when it received the memorandum from the majority.”

That is simply not what happened.

The White House announced Friday night (translation: news-dump o’clock) that it would not immediately approve the release of the Democratic memo. It instead instructed Democrats to work with the Justice Department to adjust the memo so that it could be released publicly.

It’s entirely possible this won’t make a huge difference in the memo’s content and impact. But let’s be clear: This is not how the White House treated the Nunes memo.

When it was confronted with a decision about whether to release that memo, it did so over the objections of the FBI. The FBI publicly objected to the Nunes memo’s release, suggesting the document left out key facts and was misleading. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said in an extraordinary public rebuke.

And even before all of that — and before he had even reviewed the memo — Trump and the White House made clear they would release the GOP memo. Trump told a Republican lawmaker after his State of the Union address Jan. 30 that he would “100 percent” release the memo.

In this case, by contrast, the White House wasn’t nearly so eager to commit to a memo’s release and is now suggesting it is bowing to concerns from the very same federal law enforcement entities whose objections it disregarded last time. It will argue that it is just handling classified information with care, but it did not demonstrate that level of care last week when it forced through the Nunes memo.

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The Nunes memo has been widely criticized, and Democrats have argued that a key claim — that then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said the Steele dossier was vital to the FISA application — simply isn’t true. (The memo doesn’t directly quote McCabe’s comments, which came in a closed-door Intelligence Committee hearing but instead paraphrases him.) The memo also seemed to undermine its own claims by pointing out that the Russia investigation began months before the Steele dossier was used in the FISA application. Despite this, some Republicans have suggested that the Steele dossier was a predicate for the investigation — a suggestion aimed at undermining the broader Russia probe that is currently imperiling the White House.

Having said all of this, could it simply be that the Democratic memo contains more sensitive classified information than the Nunes memo did? Sure. (Although it bears noting that Intelligence Committee Republicans did unanimously vote for its release.) Is it possible there will be only minor changes? Sure. And it would sure seem that the Justice Department would want to make certain that the Democratic memo still does a good job countering some key claims from the Nunes memo, given how federal law enforcement’s reputation is on the line.

But with all of this happening behind closed doors, we simply don’t know. What we do know is that the White House didn’t treat these memos the same, as it promised it would.

Of course, the Twitter-troll-in-chief accused Democrats in a Saturday morning tweet of knowingly submitting a memo that would be difficult to release without changes. He said they knew their memo “would have to be heavily redacted, whereupon they would blame the White House for lack of transparency” and that he asked them to “re-do and send back in proper form!”

House Intelligence Committee Republicans encourage the minority to accept the DOJ’s recommendations and make the appropriate technical changes and redactions so that no sources and methods are disclosed and their memo can be declassified as soon as possible.”

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said that Ryan still “wants both memos released.”

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Democrats have said they have no intention of releasing any part of the document that the FBI and Justice Department does not approve. They also say the classified information in their memo provides necessary context “to rebut the errors, omissions, and distortions in the Republican-drafted memo,” according to the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.).

Schiff indicated an eagerness to work with the agencies quickly to release the memo. He also responded to Trump’s decision on Twitter, writing: “After ignoring urging of FBI & DOJ not to release misleading Nunes memo because it omits material facts, @POTUS now expresses concerns over sharing precisely those facts with public and seeks to send it back to the same Majority that produced the flawed Nunes memo to begin with.”

In related news on Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a a minority view analysis on behalf of all Judiciary Committee Democrats of the Christopher Steele criminal referral that is a robust defense of Steele, who alerted the FBI to his findings before the election.

Feinstein’s memo was intended to rebut a criminal referral recently delivered to the Department of Justice by two of her Republican colleagues, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and panel member Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). House Republicans have pointed to the specifics of Grassley and Graham’s memo as corroboration of the complaints they made in their memo. Feinstein also accuses Grassley and Graham of omitting key facts about Steele’s interactions with the FBI.

Grassley and Graham have urged law enforcement to investigate whether Steele lied to the FBI before the 2016 election regarding his contacts with the media. The two Republicans pointed out a warrant application submitted by the Justice Department noted the FBI did not believe Steele had directly provided information to Yahoo News before the news organization published an article in September 2016 that included information similar to Steele’s allegations. However, in a court document filed in London, Steele has acknowledged meeting with a Yahoo News reporter around the same time.

In her rebuttal, Feinstein noted her Republican colleague’s investigation request did not cite a specific instance in which Steele was asked by the FBI about his media contacts nor a time when he lied about them. She described Steele as a “respected and reliable expert on Russia,” who had provided credible information to the FBI in the past about corruption in soccer’s governing body, FIFA, as well other issues, and who came to the FBI voluntarily out of his concern for U.S. security.

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Responding to Feinstein’s letter point by point, Grassley’s office said that his referral had not asserted Steele lied but instead pointed out discrepancies in FBI records regarding Steele’s media contacts and asked for an investigation.

Sens. Grassley and Graham assert that the Steele dossier formed the “bulk” of the FISA application, and as important, that the application “appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page,” and that the FBI “relied more heavily on Steele’s credibility than on any independent verification or corroboration for his claims.” The Grassley Letter Everyone Is Ignoring Is Way More Important Than the Nunes Memo:

Grassley and Graham focus on the more relevant question Nunes neglected: Whether the specific (and not particularly salacious) allegations about Carter Page relied upon in the FISA application had been corroborated.

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If the Grassley letter is accurate, it should provoke a debate, not about whether some cabal within the FBI had chosen Carter Page as the unlikely vehicle for a byzantine plot against Trump, but about whether the FISA process is rigorous enough to protect the civil liberties of all Americans, including those without high political connections. This is no longer a question of whether the FBI concealed information from the FISA court, but of whether the court looked at a relatively meager body of evidence and signed off on a wiretap anyway. That wouldn’t imply a personal conspiracy against Trump, but a deficiency in the mechanism by which thousands of targeted FISA warrants—more than 300 focused on Americans in 2016—are routinely approved. The problem, in other words, would not be that the Page application got exceptionally lax scrutiny, but rather that it didn’t.

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