The document produced by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee alleges serious abuses by the FBI of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But Democrats says it’s a hack job drawn up to shield Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller, whose probe is moving inexorably closer to the President.
Trump’s critics believe the purpose of the memo and coordination between committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes and the White House, is partly designed to discredit Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Russia investigation.
Democrats fear that Trump could use Rosenstein’s approval of an extended surveillance warrant for campaign foreign policy aide Carter Page, that is outlined in the report, as an excuse to fire him.
“The President hasn’t needed much by way of justification to go after people and I hope he won’t use this as a mode of pretext, but you never know with Donald Trump,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel.
One source told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that Trump blames Rosenstein for the current state of the Russia investigation and is “is unlikely to ever get beyond it.” But a Republican who speaks to the President said it was not clear that Rosenstein would be fired, despite clearly being in Trump’s sights.
The purpose of dispensing Rosenstein would not just be to purge an official he views as disloyal, it would get Trump closer to Mueller himself and spur new speculation that the President could try to remove the special counsel.
“He may use this memo, false and scurrilous as it is, as a weapon to try and decapitate the leadership of the FBI and the Justice Department as a way of getting to Bob Mueller,” said Tim Weiner, author of “Enemies, a History of the FBI,” on CNN International on Friday.
“If so, A) he will have obstructed justice yet again and B) he will have created a constitutional crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the darkest days of Watergate,” he said.
Trump, however, has learned that firing key officials does not make the Russia investigation go away — it simply makes it worse for him — following his removal of former FBI Director James Comey, which resulted in the appointment of Mueller and an expansion of the Russia probe to find out whether he obstructed justice.
CNN’s Pamela Brown reported Friday that there were no current discussions about getting rid of Rosenstein in the White House, largely because Trump believes firing him would only prolong the investigation.
But the fate of the deputy attorney general is not the only unknown that will play out in the coming days.
So far, the FBI has not publicly reacted to the release of the memo. But the bureau vehemently protested against the publication of the document, which it said was blighted by the omission of facts that offered an insight into the true events that led up to the request at a special court for the surveillance of Page.
But it is clear this episode has further fractured relations between the FBI and the White House, a breach that could lead to new and damaging public showdowns and an eroding of morale within the bureau’s ranks.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like for these folks frankly in some of my old jobs,” the former head of the CIA and National Security Agency Michael Hayden said on CNN Friday.
“We have gone to a place we have never gone before which is the injection of not just partisanship but hyper partisanship into the FISA process,” he added.
There had been fears among senior officials in the White House that the memo’s release could prompt FBI Director Christopher Wray to quit. But he offered his agents a pep talk on Friday, telling them: “The work you do is important and I believe in our mission and support what we do every day.”
That message may be a sign that Wray has no intention of walking out the door. Any sense among the rank-and-file that the bureau is being unfairly treated could convince its personnel to double down on their mission in a way that could be bad for Trump. If so, it would not be the only sign that releasing the memo might have backfired.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has also been ostracized by Trump, appeared to dig in further behind Rosenstein and his the Justice Department’s No. 3 official Rachel Brand.
“Rod’s had 27 years in the department, Rachel has a number of years in the department previously, so they both represent the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department,” Sessions said on Friday before the release of the Nunes memo.
The memo furor may also have political reverberations.
The document is certain to drive days of news coverage on Fox News and other pro-Trump outlets, inflaming the already intense campaign that is designed to discredit the Mueller investigation ahead of its final report and to bolster opposition among conservatives against any eventual action against the President.
Trump has made no secret of his purpose in cooperating with Nunes to get the memo published.
“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, Rank & File are great people!” Trump wrote on Twitter Friday.
Trump’s supporters are likely to be convinced that the memo does indeed show evidence of bias against him in the FBI and Justice Department, and those who disdain him will think the opposite, such is the nation’s polarization.
But Republicans, who were out selling the report on television soon after it was released will hope that Friday’s drama could reshape public opinion even in a small way or simply fog the narrative of the Russia investigation.
“This is the first time in American political history that an opposition research document has been injected into the bloodstream of our intelligence community,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, claimed to CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“That’s not a Republican or Democrat concern. That’s an American concern,” he said referring to the dossier drawn up by a former British spy on Trump and Russia that was partly paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and which the memo said was the premier evidence for the FISA warrant. Democrats dispute that claim.
But attempts to market the memo by Republicans will be challenged by Democrats who view it as evidence of a scheme by the President and Capitol Hill allies to undermine the Russia evidence based on one search warrant application. Democratic leaders hope the committee will vote next week to release their rebuttal to the memo that will challenge the Nunes report. But reflecting the relative powerlessness of Democrats, the document will then have to go to Trump who will have five days to register objections to declassifying it.
There are also calls for a full inquiry into the surveillance application concerning Page, a process that Republicans could chose to pursue in the committee or elsewhere.
Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, one of the few lawmakers who has seen the underlying intelligence from which it the memo was drawn, called for further steps to investigate.
“Further oversight and accountability for the individuals in question is necessary to ensure that the American people can have confidence in these important institutions going forward,” he said.
CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz and Tal Kopan contributed to this report.