By Nicholas Fandos and Adam Goldman
WASHINGTON – President Trump cleared the way Thursday for the release of a secret memo written by Republican congressional staffers and said to accuse federal law enforcement officials of abusing their surveillance authorities.
Trump, who had a brief window to block the memo's disclosure on national security grounds, was expected to tell Congress on Friday that he had no objections and would likely not request any material be redacted, according to a senior administration official. It would then be up to the House Intelligence Committee, whose Republican leaders have pushed for its release, to make the document public.
The president's decision came despite a growing chorus of warnings from national security officials who say that releasing the document would jeopardize sensitive government information, including how intelligence is gathered, and from Democrats who say it is politically motivated and distorts the actions of the Justice Department and the FBI by omitting crucial context.
But Trump wanted the memo out. He had told people close to him that he believes it makes the case that law enforcement officials acted inappropriately in seeking the highly classified warrant on one of his campaign advisers, Carter Page.
Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday defended the memo and its primary author, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., saying the document was not an attack on institutions like the FBI and Justice Department, and was not meant to undermine the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
At least one Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 in the Senate, urged his House colleagues Thursday to slow their push to release the memo.
Thune said he thought that the Senate Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., should be allowed to see the document before its release. He also said that House Republicans should carefully consider the FBI's warning that it had "grave concerns" about making the memo public.
"They need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say about what this, you know, how this bears on our national security," Thune told reporters at the Republicans' annual policy retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
Thune also called for a Democratic memo rebutting the Republican document to be shown to the public at the same time.
In a rare statement Wednesday, the FBI strongly condemned the memo's release, saying the bureau had "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."
People familiar with the 3 1/2-half page Republican memo say it contends that officials from the FBI and Justice Department may have misled a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge when they sought a warrant to spy on Page in October 2016. The people say the officials relied on information handed over by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that Democrats had financed his research.
Also at issue Thursday were charges by Democrats that the Republicans had made "material changes" to the memo after the Intelligence Committee voted to release it but before it was transmitted to the White House for review. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, wrote in a letter late Wednesday that the committee needed to restart the process and vote again on the revised memo under the same never-before-used House rules that the committee invoked to vote on the release. The committee had initially voted along party lines Monday in favor of release.
The letter started yet another round of finger-pointing among committee members, who have bitterly wrestled over the memo. Republicans quickly countered Wednesday night that Schiff was "complaining about minor edits" and said their vote was "absolutely procedurally sound." Another person familiar with the changes described them as more than cosmetic and an attempt to water down assertions made in the document.
In a sharply worded letter of her own Thursday morning, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, called on Ryan to remove Nunes as the Intelligence Committee's chairman.
"Congressman Nunes' deliberately dishonest actions make him unfit to serve as Chairman, and he must be removed immediately from this position," she wrote, adding, "The integrity of the House is at stake."
Nunes gave no indication that he intended to change course.
Trump had five days from the time of the vote to review the document for national security concerns and try to block it. The president apparently made up his mind quickly, telling a Republican congressman after his State of the Union address Tuesday night that he would not stop the release.
The White House also allowed officials from the nation's intelligence agencies to review the document, but the Senate Intelligence Committee's earlier request to see the memo was declined by House Republicans.