WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday it will conduct a legal and national security review before President Donald Trump decides whether to release a classified memo on the Russia investigation that has sparked a political firestorm pitting Republicans against the FBI and the Department of Justice.
Trump has five days to object to the release of the memo, though he has signaled he wants it made public. The memo arrived at the White House Monday evening after Republicans on the House intelligence committee brushed aside opposition from the Justice Department and voted to release the memo, which purports to show improper use of surveillance by the FBI and the Justice Department in the Russia investigation.
The four-page memo has become a political flashpoint, with Trump and many Republicans pushing for its release and suggesting that some in the Justice Department and FBI have conspired against the president.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the memo shows “there may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals,” as he voiced his support for releasing the memo in the interest of transparency. Ryan did not provide additional details, only saying that “there are legitimate questions about whether an American’s civil liberties were violated by the FISA process,” a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
It’s unclear how FBI malfeasance could have solely resulted in a judge signing off on a FISA warrant. Applications for such warrants are submitted by Justice Department lawyers before a judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Those lawyers would have to authorize and ultimately prepare any filing that is made.
Ryan’s comments came after House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said late Monday on CNN that Ryan is allowing the release of a “false memo based on a false premise.”
The memo now at the White House for review was written by Republicans on the committee, led by chairman Rep. Devin Nunes of California, a close Trump ally who has become a fierce critic of the FBI and the Justice Department. Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump’s campaign was involved.
Republicans have said the memo reveals grave concerns about abuses of the government surveillance powers in the Russia investigation. Democrats have called it a selectively edited group of GOP talking points that attempt to distract from the committee’s own investigation into Russian meddling.
The vote Monday to release the memo is an unprecedented move by the committee, which typically goes out of its way to protect classified information in the interest of protecting intelligence sources and methods.
The White House said Trump would meet with his national security team and White House counsel to review it in the coming days.
In an interview on “Fox and Friends,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated the memo likely won’t be released Tuesday, noting that the administration hasn’t set a “specific time” for its public disclosure.
“We want to make sure we do it the right way and that’s where we are right now,” Sanders said.
Republicans said they are confident the release won’t harm national security. They also said they would not release the underlying intelligence that informed the memo.
“You’ll see for yourself that it’s not necessary,” said Texas Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who’s leading the House’s Russia investigation.
But Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the panel had “crossed a deeply regrettable line” and “voted to put the president’s personal interests, perhaps their own political interest, above the national interest.” He noted that the memo’s release could compromise intelligence sources and methods.
The Justice Department has also voiced concerns about the memo’s release. In a letter last week, Justice officials said releasing the classified memo could be “extraordinarily reckless” and asked to review it. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd suggested that releasing classified information could damage the United States’ relationship with other countries with which it shares intelligence.
After those complaints, FBI Director Christopher Wray reviewed the memo over the weekend.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who was with Wray when he reviewed the memo, said the FBI director did not raise any national security concerns with him. Gowdy said the memo doesn’t reveal any intelligence methods but it does reveal “one source.”
But Schiff said Wray told him Monday that the review didn’t satisfy his concerns about the memo’s release. Wray wanted to brief the committee about FBI and Justice Department concerns ahead of any release, a request committee Republicans blocked, Schiff said.
Privately, Trump has been fuming over the Justice Department’s opposition to releasing the memo, according to an administration official not authorized to discuss private conversations and speaking on condition of anonymity. At Trump’s behest, White House chief of staff John Kelly and other White House officials contacted Justice Department officials in the past week to convey the president’s displeasure with the department’s leadership on the issue specifically, the official said. In a series of calls, Kelly urged the Justice officials to do more within the bounds of the law to get the memo out, the official said.
Some Republican senators have said they don’t want to release the memo, and Democrats have pushed back on Republican criticism of the FBI, saying it is an attempt to discredit Mueller’s investigation. The probe has already resulted in charges against four of Trump’s former campaign advisers and has recently moved closer to Trump’s inner circle.
In response, Democrats on the panel have put together their own memo. On Monday, the committee voted to make the Democratic memo available to all House members — but not the public. Conaway said he was open to making it public after House members have a chance to review it.