WASHINGTON >> FBI Director Christopher Wray clashed publicly with the president for the first time today, condemning a push by House Republicans to release a secret memo that purports to show how the bureau and the Justice Department abused their authorities to obtain a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser.
The “FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the bureau said in a statement. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Though Wray’s name was not attached to the statement, the high-profile comment by the FBI thrust him into a confrontation with President Donald Trump, who abruptly fired his predecessor, James Comey. Trump wants to see the memo released, telling people close to him that he believes it makes the case that FBI and Justice Department officials acted inappropriately when they sought the highly classified warrant in October 2016 on the campaign adviser, Carter Page.
The president’s stance puts him at odds with much of his national security establishment. The Justice Department has warned repeatedly that the memo, prepared by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, is misleading and that its release would set a bad precedent for making government secrets public. FBI officials have said privately that the president is prioritizing politics over national security and is putting the bureau’s reputation at risk.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House committee, described the FBI objections as “spurious” and accused the two law enforcement agencies of making “material omissions” to Congress and the courts.
“It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign,” Nunes said in a statement. “Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again.”
People who have read the 3 1/2-page memo say it contends that officials from the FBI and the Justice Department were not forthcoming to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge in seeking the warrant. It says that the officials relied on information assembled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that Democrats had financed the research.
Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker, had been on authorities’ radar for years. He had visited Moscow in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December when investigators obtained the warrant in October 2016.
The memo has come to the forefront in a string of attempts by Trump’s allies to shift attention from the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling and toward the actions of the investigators themselves. Republicans in Congress and in conservative media have asserted that the memo will show political bias in the early stages of the Russia investigation.
The Republican-led Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday night to release it, invoking an obscure, never-before-used House rule to sidestep the usual back-and-forth between lawmakers and the executive branch over the government’s most closely held secrets. Democrats on the committee objected and have prepared their own 10-page point-by-point rebuttal of the Republican document. The committee voted against releasing the Democrats’ memo publicly.
Under the rule, Trump has five days to try to stop the release for national security reasons.
Democrats have called the Republican document a dangerous effort to build a narrative to undercut the department’s investigation into whether Trump’s associates colluded with Russians and whether Trump obstructed justice. They say it uses cherry-picked facts assembled with little or no context and could do lasting damage to faith in federal law enforcement.
The FBI statement ran counter to the decidedly low-key approach that Wray has taken as director, avoiding news media interviews and delivering anodyne speeches to law enforcement groups. He had worked quietly in the hopes of keeping the FBI out of the president’s crosshairs.
Since taking over the FBI about six months ago, Wray has had to defend the bureau against the president’s broadsides. But the director has done so in a nonconfrontational manner. In December, when Trump said the FBI’s standing was the “worst in history” and its reputation in “tatters,” Wray sent a message to the bureau’s more than 35,000 agents and support staff saying that the professionalism and dedication was inspiring.
Stephanie Douglas, a former top FBI executive, said Wray had to act on his concerns.
“His role as the FBI director is about credibility,” she said. “He’s obligated by his role to speak the truth. I think he did the right thing. That’s his job. If he didn’t say something about a document lacking factual accuracy, he would have to make up for a lot of lost trust.”
Wray had strongly objected to the move to release the memo and was allowed to review it only Sunday, after Nunes relented. Wray made a last-ditch effort Monday, going to the White House with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to try to persuade the White House to stop the release of the memo. They spoke to John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, but were unsuccessful.
Trump could only block the release of the memo, not make it public himself, but with his approval, House Republicans were expected to move quickly to unveil the document. Kelly said Wednesday that he expected the memo to be released “pretty quick,” while cautioning that White House lawyers were still reviewing it.
Ultimately, though, Trump was eager to see the document released. Even as the White House’s review was continuing, Trump was overheard on Tuesday night as he exited his first State of the Union address assuring a House Republican that he would see to the document’s release.
“Oh, don’t worry, 100 percent,” Trump told the lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. “Can you imagine that?”
The memo is also said to highlight the role of several senior law enforcement officials, including Rosenstein, who authorized a renewal of the surveillance of Page in the spring of 2017. Trump has recently expressed his displeasure with Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel conducting the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller. And the memo could expose Rosenstein to some of the criticisms being directed by Republicans at other officials.
Also mentioned is Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, who has been a target of Republicans in Congress and of Trump. McCabe stepped down Monday, telling people close to him that he had felt pressured to because of a separate Justice Department inspector general investigation.
During his confirmation hearing, Wray foreshadowed Wednesday’s confrontation. He told senators that he was no pushover and would resist political interference.
Wray has followed through. He resisted White House pressure to replace staff members, including McCabe, who were once loyal to Comey, to avoid appearing as if he was taking orders from the president in a job that is supposed to be politically independent. Wray did eventually sideline McCabe, who stepped down abruptly, but only after finding cause to do so.
In late September, Wray said in a speech in Washington that the FBI would abide by the rule of law and that wouldn’t change as long as he was director. He also said the FBI would not bow to intimidation.
“We’re going to follow the facts independently,” he said, “no matter where they lead, no matter who likes it.”