WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress on Friday escalated a campaign against U.S. law enforcement agencies over their probe of Trump’s ties to Russia, releasing a disputed memo that the FBI warned was misleading and inaccurate.
The previously classified document, written by Republicans on the House of Representatives intelligence committee, alleges that the federal probe of potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia was a product of political bias against Trump at the FBI and Justice Department.
Ignoring a plea from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Trump approved the memo’s release without redactions, deepening an extraordinary breach between the president and senior law enforcement officials over a probe that has dogged him during his first year in office.
Democrats said the four-page memo mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information and was intended to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal probe into the Russia matter launched in May 2017 that grew out of an earlier FBI investigation. They warned Trump against using it as a pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who hired Mueller and oversees the investigation, or Mueller himself.
Mueller also is examining whether Trump has committed obstruction of justice in trying to thwart the Russia probe.
Asked by reporters whether the memo made him more likely to fire Rosenstein or whether he had confidence in him, Trump replied, “You figure that one out.” Dismissing Rosenstein would likely ignite a huge political firestorm, as his firing of FBI chief James Comey did last year.
A White House official later said there have been no discussions about firing Rosenstein.
When asked about the potential dismissal of Rosenstein, White House press spokesman Raj Shah told CNN late on Friday that there would be “no changes” at the Justice Department.
“We fully expect Rod Rosenstein to continue on as the deputy attorney general,” he said.
The memo alleges that the Federal Bureau of Investigation concealed the Democratic ties of a source the agency used to justify surveillance on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor with ties to Russia. The memo revealed the names of senior FBI and Justice Department officials including Rosenstein who it said had signed off on this.
“I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” Trump told reporters when asked about the memo, adding that “a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves.”
Some lawmakers accused Trump of playing into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin after, as Republican Senator John McCain put it, Russia “engaged in an elaborate plot to interfere in an American election and undermine our democracy.”
“If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him,” McCain, who is being treated for brain cancer, said in a statement.
Mueller’s probe has led to guilty pleas by two of Trump’s foreign policy advisers to charges of lying to the FBI, and indictments of former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates.
Trump has called the investigation a “witch hunt,” denying any collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. Moscow has denied any election meddling.
In a swipe at U.S. law enforcement leaders on Twitter hours before the memo’s release, Trump said, “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans - something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.”
It was his latest attack on top law enforcement officials. Trump fired Comey last May as the FBI pursued the Russia probe, leading to Mueller’s appointment by Rosenstein.
The FBI on Wednesday had expressed “grave concerns about material omissions of fact” in the document and urged that it not be made public. Writing on Twitter, Comey branded the memo “dishonest and misleading.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray sent a message to bureau employees apparently aimed at boosting morale after the memo’s release. “I stand by our shared determination to do our work independently and by the book,” Wray said in the message, excerpts of which were seen by Reuters.
The memo was commissioned by the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, Devin Nunes. He said it laid bare “serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, criticized by Trump for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, offered praise for Rosenstein as well as the department’s No. 3 official Rachel Brand on Friday, saying they “represent the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.”
The memo focused on court-approved surveillance of Page, the former campaign advisor, and said the FBI used a source who was strongly biased against Trump, former British spy Christopher Steele, to justify the action.
It alleged that a dossier of alleged Trump-Russia contacts compiled by Steele, and funded in part by U.S. Democrats, formed an “essential part” of requests to a special court to be allowed to conduct electronic surveillance on Page that began in October 2016.
It said the initial application and subsequent renewal applications, signed off on by various senior Justice Department officials, did not mention the link between Steele and the Democrats. It also portrayed Steele as “passionate” about Trump not becoming president.
Despite the memo’s charges, neither the focus on Page nor the FBI’s investigation of Trump-Russia ties began with the Steele dossier. Page came to the FBI’s attention as early as 2013, when he met in New York with Russians who were officers of the Kremlin’s foreign intelligence service, sources have said.
The memo acknowledges that the FBI counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016, three months before the request for electronic surveillance on Page, as a result of the activities of another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos.
Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that Russia had political dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, information Australian officials passed to the U.S. government, the New York Times reported in December.
“The selective release and politicization of classified information sets a terrible precedent and will do long-term damage to the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement agencies,” House intelligence committee Democrats said in a statement.
They said they hoped the panel would vote on Monday to release their own memo responding to the allegations. Shah, the White House spokesman, told CNN Trump “would be inclined” to let that memo be released if it clears a security and legal review.
Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Ian Simpson, Warren Strobel, Sarah N. Lynch and David Alexander; Writing by Alistair Bell and Warren Strobel; Editing by Will Dunham and Leslie Adler