Donald Trump has claimed complete vindication from a congressional memo alleging the FBI abused its surveillance powers during the investigation into his campaign’s possible Russia ties. But the memo also includes revelations that might complicate efforts by the President and his allies to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry.
The four-page document contends the FBI, when it applied for a surveillance warrant on a one-time Trump campaign associate, relied excessively on an ex-British spy whose opposition research was funded by Democrats. At the same time, the memo confirms the investigation into potential Trump links to Russia actually began several months earlier, and was “triggered” by information involving a different campaign aide.
Christopher Steele, the former spy who compiled the allegations, acknowledged having strong anti-Trump sentiments. But he also was a “longtime FBI source” with a credible track record, according to the memo from the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, and his staff.
The warrant authorising the FBI to monitor the communications of former campaign adviser Carter Page was not a one-time request, but was approved by a judge on four occasions, the memo says, and even signed off by the second-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, whom Mr Trump appointed as deputy attorney general.
Mr Trump however tweeted from Florida, where he was spending the weekend, that the memo puts him in the clear. He said: “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their [sic] was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”
The underlying materials that served as the basis for the warrant application were not made public in the memo. As a result, the document only further intensified a partisan battle over how to interpret the actions of the FBI and Justice Department during the early stages of the counterintelligence investigation Mr Mueller later inherited.
Some Republicans are citing the memo, released over the objections of the FBI and Justice Department, in their arguments the Mueller investigation is politically tainted.
The memo’s central allegation is that agents and prosecutors, in applying in October 2016 to monitor Mr Page’s communications, failed to tell a judge the opposition research that provided grounds for the FBI’s suspicion had been partially funded by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Mr Page had stopped advising the campaign sometime around the end of that summer. Republicans say a judge should have known “political actors” were involved in allegations that led the Justice Department to believe Mr Page might be an agent of a foreign power – an accusation has consistently and strenuously denied.
Mr Steele’s research, according to the memo, “formed an essential part” of the warrant application. But it’s unclear how much or what information he collected made it into the application, or how much has been corroborated. His opposition research effort was initially funded by the conservative Washington Free Beacon.
The FBI this week expressed “grave concerns” about the memo and called it inaccurate and incomplete. Democrats said it was a set of cherry-picked claims aimed at smearing law enforcement and releasing the memo would damage law enforcement and intelligence work.
Beyond that, the memo confirms the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign began in July 2016, months before the surveillance warrant was sought, and was “triggered” by information concerning campaign aide George Papadopoulos. He pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with Mr Mueller’s investigation.
The timing makes clear that other Trump associates beyond Mr Page, who was part of the election effort for only a short period and was not in Mr Trump’s inner circle, had generated law enforcement scrutiny. The memo also omits Mr Page had been on the FBI’s radar a few years earlier as part of a separate counterintelligence investigation into Russian influence.
The memo focuses on Mr Page, but Democrats on the House committee said “this ignores the inconvenient fact that the investigation did not begin with, or arise from Christopher Steele or the dossier, and that the investigation would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture”.
Other details in the memo could also challenge Republican claims of bias. The warrant requested was renewed on three additional occasions, meaning judges approved it four times. One of the Justice Department officials who signed off on it was