WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee made “material changes” to a secret memo he shared with lawmakers before sending it to the president to approve for final release, the top Democrat on the committee said Wednesday night.
Adam Schiff (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, called on Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to withdraw the version of the classified memo he sent to the White House on Monday, arguing that a prior vote in favor of releasing the memo was invalidated by Nunes’ changes.
The memo, drafted by Nunes’ staff, reportedly accuses the Justice Department and the FBI of abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in the fall of 2016 to spy on Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser.
Earlier this month, members of the House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines to allow all members of the House to read the memo. Several Republicans hyped the document as evidence of a cabal of law enforcement officials determined to block President Donald Trump from entering office and to undermine his presidency. Democrats dismissed the memo as an inaccurate and misleading attempt to impugn law enforcement officials and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Schiff, one of two members of the committee who has seen the underlying intelligence on which the memo is based, accused Nunes and Republicans who backed the memo of politicizing intelligence to protect Trump.
On Monday, committee members voted again along party lines to send Nunes’ memo to Trump, giving him five days to decide whether to block it from being released publicly. During the same meeting, Republicans on the committee prevented Democrats from simultaneously releasing their own memo, drafted as a rebuttal to the Nunes document. Republicans also voted down a motion to delay the release of either memo until they had been reviewed by the Justice Department and FBI.
In an unusual public statement, the FBI warned Wednesday that it has “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the Republicans’ memo. Nunes, who recently voted to reauthorize and expand the part of FISA that allows intelligence agencies to collect information on U.S. citizens, accused the FBI of issuing “spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses.”
By Wednesday, the release of the Republicans’ memo seemed imminent. Trump, who has attacked the credibility of the law enforcement agencies tasked with investigating him, assured a lawmaker on Monday evening that he “100%” plans to release the memo.
But on Wednesday night, Schiff announced a discovery he hopes will block, or at least delay, its release. The memo Nunes sent to the White House was a different version of the memo that was shared with lawmakers, Schiff wrote in a letter to Nunes on Wednesday.
“While the Majority’s changes do not correct the profound distortions and inaccuracies in your document, they are nonetheless substantive,” Schiff wrote in the letter.
The changes “try to water down” some of the Republicans’ assertions, a Democratic committee source, who requested anonymity to frankly discuss internal committee processes, told HuffPost. The changes were made ahead of the Monday vote but without the knowledge of all committee members, the source said.
When the committee voted on Monday to send the memo to Trump to approve for release, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) specifically asked Nunes if the memo shared with members of the House would “word for word” be made public, according to a transcript of the meeting.
“Well, as the gentleman knows, we will send the content over to the White House, and the President has five days to either agree with us that it should be made public, or the President could say that he does not want it made public,” Nunes responded on Monday.
That response “was deliberately misleading,” Schiff wrote in his letter to Nunes. Because Nunes changed the document before sending it to the White House, without notifying other members of the committee, its Monday vote is irrelevant, Schiff argued. He called on Nunes to withdraw the version sent to the White House and hold a new committee vote on releasing the document.
A spokesman for Nunes indicated that the chairman has no plans to withdraw his memo. “In its increasingly strange attempt to thwart publication of the memo, the Committee Minority is now complaining about minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and by the Minority themselves,” Jack Langer, wrote in an email. “The vote to release the memo was absolutely procedurally sound, and in accordance with House and Committee rules. To suggest otherwise is a bizarre distraction from the abuses detailed in the memo, which the public will hopefully soon be able to read for themselves.”
The Democratic committee source disputed Langer’s description of the changes. “While the Minority has continually pointed out flaws in the Majority document, we have not requested any changes because we feel the whole document is fundamentally flawed,” the source wrote in an email. “It is clear that the Majority is no longer fully comfortable with what it has represented to House members. The Majority has no choice but to restart the process in a transparent manner.”
Regardless of the nature of the edits to the Nunes memo, Schiff’s effort to delay the Republicans’ memo could be a strategically sound move. If he succeeds, he might be able to push his own rebuttal memo through the committee voting process in time so that it can be released alongside Nunes’ memo.
During the committee meeting on Monday, Schiff accused Nunes of purposely orchestrating the timing of the release of each memo to control the narrative around the appropriateness of the Justice Department and FBI’s use of surveillance to monitor the Trump campaign staffer.
“I understand the political stratagem. You want your memo to be out there for a week and the public to have only one version for a week so you can set the narrative,” Schiff told Nunes on Monday. “That makes this political exercise all the more transparent.”
Nunes, a former member of Trump’s transition team and a close ally of the president, has used his secret memo as part of an effort to undermine Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe. The memo reportedly accuses Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of approving an application to extend surveillance of Page. Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Rosenstein is the only official who can fire Mueller. Rosenstein has repeatedly said has seen no reason to get rid of the special counsel. If Trump were to fire Rosenstein — let’s say for inappropriately approving the extension of a FISA warrant — he could then appoint a friendly replacement to fire Mueller.