Two opposing memos have enormous implications for the Trump-Russia investigation. One's still secret.
In mid-January, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes wrote a private memo to the rest of the House Intelligence Committee, the permanent select committee currently investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In "the Nunes memo," he made an astonishing claim: that the Clinton campaign paid for the creation of the Steele dossier (the notorious document on the Trump-Russia connection... it's the pee tape dossier) and the FBI used it in their application to start surveillance of former Trump advisor Carter Page. The big-picture accusation here is that the FBI is abusing its power in a coordinated effort to bring down President Trump.
But there's no evidence of any wrongdoing. And the memo seems part of a larger attack on the credibility of the FBI, aimed at undermining the Trump-Russia investigation.
So Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wrote a detailed rebuttal. It's not public, but "the Schiff memo" reportedly defends the FBI's application process to surveil Page and lays out the case that Nunes cherry-picked information in order to help Trump undercut the FBI investigation.
Over the last few weeks, House Republicans voted to release both memos.
But President Trump has so far only authorized one to become public.
Why is it important?
President Trump is in an awkward spot. By authorizing the Nunes memo and not (yet) the Schiff memo, he's opened himself to the criticism that he's a hypocrite. But it may be in his best interest to prevent Schiff from exposing specific ways the original memo twisted information to help him.
He may also want to consider the real concerns that these documents reveal too much classified and sensitive information. The FBI has sought to redact parts of both memos. Though it's hard to argue that only one of the two should be released, there's a strong case that neither should have been.
For now, Trump has asked that Democrats send back a new version with parts removed. Congress doesn't technically need his approval; If refused again, the House Intelligence Committee could ask for a full House vote, though it may be unlikely to pass.
The two memos heighten the tension between the Trump administration and the Department of Justice, which houses the FBI. Trump, Congressional Republicans, and conservative activists have been ramping up efforts to dismiss key FBI leaders and discredit an investigation that is looking worse and worse for the president.
Should the Trump administration authorize the release of both memos?
Both memos are unnecessary works of partisan spin about an ongoing investigation. If you're a Democrat who opposed the Nunes memo, you should oppose the Schiff memo. If you're a Republican now concerned about Schiff, you should revisit your views on Nunes.
Nunes recently refused to answer a question about whether he and his team worked with the Trump administration on the memo. The idea that elected officials would take classified information reported to them by the FBI and then coordinate with potential subjects of that investigation to release cherry-picked information to the public is astonishingly irresponsible.
The FBI statement on Nunes' memo read in part, "we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy." The Justice Department has already said that releasing the memo was "extraordinarily reckless" and could hurt ongoing investigations, saying "we do not understand why the committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information."
Responding to that threat to the public and to our political system by exposing even more sensitive information is kerosene on this fire.
White House counsel wrote to the House Intelligence Committee, "Although the president is inclined to declassify the [Schiff] memorandum, because the memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time." That's the responsible course of action—and it isn't any less so just because the White House made one mistake already.
It is worth exploring allegations against the FBI as transparently as possible in public, particularly given that one potentially misleading memo is already out in the world. In fact, elected officials can and should make both memos public even if (perhaps because) the Trump administration won't.
Nunes, conservative activists, Fox News, and Trump himself have flooded the media with the idea that the FBI has anti-Trump bias. Trump said the memo "totally vindicated" him. According to a recent Reuters poll, around 73% of Republicans now believe "members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations."
The coordinated campaign to undermine law enforcement simply can't go without a rebuttal.
It shouldn't be surprising that many Republican leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, agree with Democrats on this issue, "in the interest of transparency and fairness" as the Wall Street Journal put it.
It makes sense that investigators would want to redact significant portions of both memos, and we should be careful not to make public information that would clearly harm the investigation. But it's a good thing our elected officials have different incentives than the FBI. If legislators put the Schiff memo into the congressional record, it becomes public—even if some information was classified. "In 1971, then-U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel entered the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified study of the Vietnam War, into the congressional record even as the Nixon administration was trying to suppress its dissemination." A subsequent Supreme Court case reaffirmed the legality of Sen. Gravel's actions.
- The full text of the Nunes memo
- "Based on this assessment and in light of the significant public interest in the memorandum, the President has authorized the declassification of the Memorandum."
- President Trump's decision not to release the Schiff memo
- "Although the President is inclined to declassify the February 5th Memorandum, because the Memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time."