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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Partisan fight deepens as Democrat set to respond to Republican memo

Trump says publication of memo provided evidence that he was the subject of a witch hunt

President Donald Trump claimed vindication in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election, following the release of a controversial memo implying partisanship at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Win McNamee / AFP
President Donald Trump claimed vindication in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 White House election, following the release of a controversial memo implying partisanship at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Win McNamee / AFP

The partisan fight over the investigation into president Donald Trump campaign’s links to Russia is expected to deepen on Monday when a key congressional committee will decide whether to release a Democratic response to a Republican memo undermining the FBI’s use of surveillance powers.

Mr Trump and his supporters say the publication of the four-page memo on Friday vindicated the president and provided evidence that he was the subject of a witch hunt.

However, on Sunday, Adam Schiff, the highest ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC’s This Week that his Republican colleagues intended their memo to discredit the investigation.

“The interest wasn’t oversight,” he said. “The interest was a political hit job on the FBI in the service of the president.”

The furor over the memo is part of a larger political fight over the federal criminal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in an attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is also investigating whether Mr Trump tried to obstruct the probe.

Democrats have drafted their own response rebutting the memo’s claims.

The House Intelligence committee will meet on Monday to decide whether to declassify the Democratic memo, which Democrats say highlight flaws and other shortcomings in the Republican account.

Meanwhile speculation that Mr Trump is considering firing either Mr Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, is ongoing.

Dick Durbin, the second most senior Democrat in the Senate, told CNN’s State of the Union that such a move would “precipitate a constitutional crisis”.

The four-page document released on Friday contends that the FBI, when it applied for a surveillance warrant on a onetime Trump campaign associate, relied excessively on an ex-British spy whose opposition research was funded by Democrats.

At the same time, the memo confirms that the investigation into potential links between Mr Trump and 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, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. and his staff.

The warrant authorising the FBI to monitor the communications of former campaign adviser Carter Page was not a one-time request. It was approved by a judge on four occasions, the memo says, and even signed off on by the second-ranking official at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, whom Mr Trump appointed as deputy attorney general.

President Trump, however, tweeted on Saturday from Florida, where he was spending the weekend, that the memo puts him in the clear.

"This memo totally vindicates 'Trump' in probe," he wrote. "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 that Mr Mueller later inherited.

Even as Democrats described it as inaccurate, some Republicans quickly cited the memo — released over the objections of the FBI and Justice Department — in their arguments that Mr Mueller's investigation is politically tainted.

A closer read presents a far more nuanced picture.

"Having decided to cherry-pick, the Nunes team picked a bunch of the wrong cherries for its own narrative," Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor and former Bush administration official, wrote in an email.

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 that the opposition research that provided grounds for the FBI's suspicion received funding from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Mr Page had stopped advising the campaign sometime around the end of that summer.

Mr Steele's research, according to the memo, "formed an essential part" of the warrant application.

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Read more:

Carter Page takes centre stage in wake of memo release

Fact-checking the disputed Republican memo on the Russia probe

Republicans release disputed memo, claiming FBI misled a judge over Trump case

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But it's unclear how much or what information Mr Steele collected made it into the application, or how much has been corroborated. Mr Steele was working for Fusion GPS, a firm initially hired by the conservative Washington Free Beacon to do opposition research on Mr Trump.

Mr Steele didn't begin work on the project until after Democratic groups took over the funding.

Republicans say a judge should have known that "political actors" were involved in allegations that led the Justice Department to believe that Mr Page might be an agent of a foreign power — an accusation he has consistently and strenuously denied.

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 that releasing the memo would damage law enforcement and intelligence work.

For one, Democrats said it was misleading and incorrect to say a judge was not told of the potential political motivations of the people paying for Mr Steele's research.

Beyond that, though, 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.

The confirmation about Mr Papadopoulos is "the most important fact disclosed in this otherwise shoddy memo," California Rep. Adam Schiff, the House committee's top Democrat, said in a tweet on Saturday in response to Mr Trump's assertion that the document vindicated him.

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 that 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's release also comes amid an effort by Mr Trump and congressional Republicans to discredit Mr Mueller's investigation. His probe focuses not only on whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia but also on whether the president sought to obstruct justice.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who has been deeply involved in hotly debated Republican issues such as the Benghazi hearings, says the GOP memo has no impact on Mueller's Russia probe and that the significance of the dossier has been overstated.

"There is a Russia investigation without a dossier. So to the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower," Rep. Gowdy said in an interview to air Sunday on CBS' "Face The Nation."

Mr Gowdy, who announced recently that he is not running for re-election, said: "The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos' meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn't have anything to do with obstruction of justice. So there's going to be a Russia probe, even without a dossier."