Trump poised for clash with DOJ over classified memo

The fight over the release of a classified memo alleging FBI misconduct has set up a potentially bitter clash between President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE and the Justice Department.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd — a Trump appointee — wrote in a letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesThe Memo: GOP plays risky game with attacks on Vindman Five things to know about Tuesday's impeachment hearings Nunes complains Democrats adding extra time for questioning witnesses MORE (R-Calif.) that releasing the memo publicly would be “extraordinarily reckless” and endanger national security. 

If the Intelligence Committee votes to release the four-page memo, which could happen early as early as next week, Trump would have an opportunity to veto the decision. 

But the White House has signaled tacit support for the move and it’s widely expected that the president, who has previously claimed that the Obama administration “wiretapped” his campaign, will permit the release of the document.

Allowing the committee’s memo to become public unimpeded would be a slap in the face to the Department of Justice at a time when Trump’s efforts to influence its activity are under intense scrutiny. 

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE is believed to be homing in on whether Trump obstructed justice by “fighting back” against the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. Meanwhile, a recent drumbeat of headlines have highlighted interactions between the president and Justice officials considered an unusual breach of the historical firewall between the department and the White House. 

The stakes are just as high for Nunes, who has faced allegations from Democrats of ginning up the controversy over “unmasking” to provide cover for Trump’s wiretapping claims. The memo, they say, is part of a broad partisan effort to discredit the FBI, and by extension, Mueller. 

The committee voted on party lines last week to make the memo, drafted by Nunes and his staff, available to the entire House. At least publicly, Nunes has not committed to a vote on making the document available to the public. 

But backing away would carry its own set of political risks for the embattled chairman. Conservatives are clamoring for the release of the memo, calls that escalated after the news that the FBI lost five months of text messages between a pair of FBI employees once assigned to the investigation into the Trump campaign.

The bureau blamed a technical glitch and the Justice Department inspector general has since recovered the missing texts using forensic tools. 

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The precise contents of the memo remain unknown, but it is believed to contain allegations that the FBI did not adequately explain to a clandestine court that some of the information it used in a surveillance warrant application for Trump adviser Carter Page was opposition research funded by the Clinton campaign, now known as the “Steele dossier.”

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants are highly classified — even the existence of a given warrant is classified — and Boyd in his letter warned Nunes that the reported allegations in the memo would be based on information that “neither you nor most of [the committee have] seen.” 

The Justice Department, which has not been allowed to see the memo, expressed concerns common to the exposure of any classified information: that its public release will damage ongoing investigations and harm national security by burning sources and laying bare intelligence community capabilities.

“Indeed, we do not understand why the committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community,” Boyd wrote. 

Several Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack 2020 Republicans accuse Schumer of snubbing legislation MORE (R-Texas) have suggested that Nunes should allow the department to weigh in on the release of the document. 

Nunes would be relying on an obscure House rule that has never before been used to override the classification system. If the committee votes to make the memo public, the president would have five days to block its release. And even if he did block the release, the full House could override him in a floor vote.

But the release of the memo could provide fuel for Trump’s claims that his transition was inappropriately spied on by the Obama administration — as well as back up his assertion that the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters”— and it remains unclear if he will back his own Justice Department. 

Some Republicans who have viewed the memo have hinted heavily that it contains the key to unraveling the entire Mueller investigation, long described by the president as a “witch hunt.”

“We certainly support full transparency and we believe it’s at the House Intel Committee to make that decision at this point,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week. 

A spokesman for Nunes said Thursday that the committee has not briefed the White House on the contents of the memo. 

The Justice Department is not “currently aware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process,” according to Boyd.

While Nunes has described the memo as “facts,” Democrats have slammed it as a collection of misleading talking points they are unable to correct without exposing the highly classified information underpinning the document. 

Boyd suggested that the Justice Department is in a similar position. “We assume members want to provide evidence of any specific allegation of misconduct to Department officials so that we may take appropriate action," he wrote.

Lawmakers say the underlying intelligence justifying the memo’s allegations is so sensitive that only eight members of Congress are able to view it. Nunes and ranking member Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffFive things to know about Tuesday's impeachment hearings Nunes complains Democrats adding extra time for questioning witnesses Volker says he rejected Biden 'conspiracy theory' pushed by Giuliani MORE (D-Calif.) are two of the eight figures, but the other members of the Intelligence Committee are not. The top two lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee are also part of the so-called Gang of Eight, but while they have access to the underlying intelligence, Nunes has denied committee requests to see the memo.

“Seeking Committee approval of public release would require [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] committee members to vote on a staff-drafted memorandum that purports to be based on classified source materials that neither you nor most of them have seen,” Boyd told Nunes.

Nunes has brushed aside the notion that the memo would be unpersuasive without the underlying intelligence to substantiate its claims, calling the argument Democratic obstruction of his investigation into Justice Department misconduct.

But a working group, including Nunes, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Conway spars with Wallace on whether White House will cooperate with impeachment inquiry after formal vote Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' MORE (R-S.C.) and Judiciary Committee chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.), met over the weekend to discuss the possibility of making some of the underlying information public. Nunes has “a plan,” according to committee member Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayLive coverage: House holds third day of public impeachment hearings Audience applauds, GOP microphone turned off at end of Yovanovitch hearing Democrats say Trump tweet is 'witness intimidation,' fuels impeachment push MORE (R-Texas), who provided no further details.

The memo is a committee work product and the responsibility for releasing it, or not, rests with Congress. The underlying intelligence, however, belongs to the executive branch and Trump could unilaterally make it public if he wished.

“I haven’t had that conversation with the president,” Sanders said earlier this week. “Right now, it's going through the process with the House Intel committee. We feel like they should play that role at this point, and if it doesn’t happen we can address it at this point.” 

According to Gowdy, who helped draft the memo, “everything” in it is based on documents provided to the committee by the FBI. 

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment when asked if officials had expressed Boyd’s concerns to the White House.