The White House on Friday told Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee to redraft their rebuttal to a controversial GOP memo alleging government surveillance abuse during the 2016 campaign, saying sensitive details need to be stripped out before the document can be made public.
The message was sent to the committee on Friday in a letter from White House Counsel Don McGahn.
“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,” McGahn wrote.
“However, given the public interest in transparency in these unprecedented circumstances, the President has directed that Justice Department personnel be available to give technical assistance to the Committee, should the Committee wish to revise the February 5th Memorandum to mitigate the risks identified by the Department,” McGahn continued. “The President encourages the Committee to undertake these efforts. The Executive Branch stands ready to review any subsequent draft of the February 5th Memorandum for declassification at the earliest opportunity.”
A letter signed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray accompanied McGahn’s response. In that accompanying letter, the two men noted “a version of the document that identifies, in highlighted text, information the release of which would present such concerns in light of longstanding principles regarding the protection of intelligence sources and methods, ongoing investigations, and other similarly sensitive information.
“We have further identified, in red boxes, the subset of such information for which national security or law enforcement concerns are especially significant. Our determinations have taken into account the information previously declassified by the President as communicated in a letter to HPSCI Chairman Devin Nunes dated February 2, 2018.”
Earlier this week, the House Intelligence Committee approved the release of the Democrats’ memo, giving Trump five days to consider whether he should block publication for national security reasons.
For the moment, the White House letter halts the release.
“The President’s double standard when it comes to transparency is appalling,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement after the release of McGahn’s letter. “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?”
Democrats have been expected to use their memo to try to undermine Republican claims that the FBI and DOJ relied heavily on the anti-Trump dossier to get a warrant to spy on a Trump associate — and omitted key information about the document’s political funding. Democrats claim the GOP memo was misleading.
“We think this will help inform the public of the many distortions and inaccuracies in the majority memo,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the panel, said Monday.
But it had been expected that the Democrats’ memo might raise red flags during the review period.
A source who read the FISA rebuttal memo told Fox News earlier this week that it is filled with sources and methods taken from the original documents. The source argued that this was done to strategically force the White House to either deny release of the memo or substantially redact it, so that Democrats could accuse the White House of making redactions for political reasons.
South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a GOP member of the committee, said during an interview this week on Fox News’ “The Story with Martha MacCallum” that Democrats “are politically smart enough to put things in the memo” that have to be redacted.
“Therefore, it creates this belief that there’s something being hidden from the American people,” Gowdy said.
Last Friday, Republicans on the intelligence committee released their much-anticipated memo from Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
It also said the FBI and DOJ “ignored or concealed” dossier author Christopher Steele’s “anti-Trump financial and ideological motivations” when asking the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to eavesdrop on former Trump adviser Carter Page.
Democrats have been pushing back against those claims and accusing Republicans of exaggerations.
Earlier this week, a newly released version of a letter from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appeared to support key claims from the GOP memo.
The surveillance applications, they said in a criminal referral for Steele sent in early January to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, “relied heavily on Mr. Steele’s dossier claims.”
Further, they said the application “failed to disclose” funding from the Clinton campaign and DNC.
The referral also helped explain a point of contention in recent days, after Nunes seemed to admit on “Fox & Friends” that the FBI application did include a “footnote” acknowledging some political origins of the dossier. This admission helped fuel Democratic claims that the dossier’s political connection was not concealed from the surveillance court as alleged.
According to Grassley and Graham’s referral, the FBI “noted to a vaguely limited extent the political origins of the dossier” in a footnote that said the information was compiled at the direction of a law firm “who had hired an ‘identified U.S. person’ – now known as Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS.” A subsequent passage in the letter is redacted. But they said the DNC and Clinton campaign were not mentioned.
Republicans have seized on the Nunes document to make the accusation of widespread anti-Trump bias at the top of the FBI and DOJ that sparked inquiries into Trump campaign relations with Russia during the election.
The president has repeatedly said there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia. The White House responded to the Republican memo last week by saying it “raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.”