By Karoun Demirjian and Rosalind S. Helderman
WASHINGTON - The House Intelligence Committee released on Saturday a redacted memo authored by Democrats and intended to rebut GOP allegations that federal law enforcement agencies had political motivations for wiretapping one of President Donald Trump's former campaign aides.
In their retort, Democrats charge that the GOP unfairly maligned the FBI and the Justice Department for citing in their surveillance application information from the author of a controversial dossier alleging that Trump had ties to Russian officials, research that was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
"Our extensive review . . . failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement," said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat.
Republican leaders have argued that the former campaign aide, Carter Page, was unfairly targeted, saying the surveillance court that approved the warrant was never told that information from the dossier's author, former British spy Christopher Steele, was financed by the Democrats.
According to the Democrats' memo, Page had been of interest to the FBI for years. It asserts that the bureau had interviewed him multiple times about his contacts with Russian intelligence, including in March 2016 - the same month he was named a Trump campaign adviser, and months before Steele was hired to conduct research on Trump and before he made contact with the FBI.
The court was told that Steele had been approached by a "U.S. person" who had been hired "to conduct research regarding Candidate #1's ties to Russia," according to a portion of the surveillance applications contained in the Democrats' memo. Candidate #1 is a reference to Trump.
"The FBI speculates that the U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit candidate #1's campaign," the application says.
The memo's content is the product of negotiations among the committee's Democratic members, as well as with the FBI and the Justice Department.
According to Schiff, Democrats submitted their proposed redactions more than a week ago. At first, they were told the memo would be released Friday, then on Monday, he said. They learned of its release Saturday only shortly before the Intelligence Committee's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., announced that the document had been put online for public perusal, Schiff said.
"I think the White House tried to bury it as long as they could," he told The Washington Post in an interview. The Republicans' decision to release the memo without warning, on a Saturday, is "not what you do when you think you're vindicated," he added. "It's what you do when you think the facts don't reflect well on you."
The president nonetheless claimed a victory on Twitter, calling the Democrats' memo "a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!"
Initially, Trump would not agree to release the 10-page document without significant redactions, arguing that making it available to the public would risk revealing intelligence gathering sources and methods. Democrats accused the president of applying a double standard, as he had promised to release the Republican memo before he had even read it, according to White House officials and the timing of his public comments.
No new information was declassified in the Democrats' redacted memo, according to a senior Democratic committee official. Schiff had pledged to heed recommendations from the FBI and Justice Department regarding sensitive information.
But on Saturday, Nunes accused Democrats of colluding with the government in a "coverup."
"We actually wanted this out," he told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. "It's clear evidence that the Democrats are not only covering this up, but they're also colluding with parts of the government to cover this up."
Nunes' accusations were directed not only at the Democrats who authored the memo, but at the Obama administration as well.
"This was money from the Hillary campaign and the Democratic Party making its hands
into an agent who was paying Russian agents," Nunes said. "Is it fair to ask, what did President Obama know?"
Surveillance applications and reports routinely obscure the identities of individuals and entities who are not the intended targets of wiretaps. The application to conduct surveillance on Page, and three extensions, were approved by four separate judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, the Democrats' memo says.
Page has acknowledged that an FBI wiretap detected suspected Russian spies discussing their attempts to recruit him in 2013. He has told congressional investigators that he was interviewed by the FBI and cooperated as they investigated the men, who were ultimately charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents. Page continued to have extensive contacts with Russians, including making trips to Moscow in July and December 2016.
The Democrats said on Saturday that the FBI had several other reasons to suspect the Trump campaign of questionable connections to Russia - including evidence that foreign agents approached another former campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos - before Steele approached the FBI and produced his dossier.
"DOJ told the Court the truth," the Democrats' memo reads. "Christopher Steele's reporting . . . played no role in launching the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference and links to the Trump campaign."
The memo states that by the time Steele's information reached the FBI's Russia team in mid-September 2016, the bureau had already opened "sub-inquiries" into other "individuals linked to the Trump campaign." The identities of those individuals are redacted in the memo.
Schiff said he hopes its release means the intelligence committee can refocus attention on "the core investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign." But there seems little chance this disclosure will quell the bitter political feuding that has consumed the panel.
In his comments at CPAC, Nunes stressed that the panel had seen "no evidence of collusion" between the Trump campaign and Russia - a conclusion Schiff disputes. He suggested, too, that surveillance rules need to be changed.
The Democrats are "advocating that it's okay for the FBI and DOJ to use political dirt paid for by one campaign and use it against another political campaign," Nunes said.
Republicans have floated a legislative change that would bar material paid for by a political entity from being presented as evidence to secure a surveillance warrant. Democrats oppose the effort.