February 2, 2018 / 8:55 PM / 17 days ago

Explainer - Why Washington is inflamed over the Russia probe memo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives released on Friday a previously classified memo that portrays senior officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department as being biased against him in the federal investigation into potential collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

Here is what is in play:

HOW DID THE MEMO COME TO BE?

The four-page document was commissioned and eventually made public by Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who served on the president’s transition team before Trump took office in January 2017.

It was written by committee Republicans, who then voted to make it public over the objections of the panel’s Democrats. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department argued against its release, with the FBI expressing “grave concerns about material omissions of fact.” Trump had the authority to block its release, but allowed it to be made public without redactions.

The panel Republicans voted against releasing a memo written by its Democratic members at the same time. Democrats said the intent of the memo was to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing criminal investigation into the potential collusion with Moscow and whether Trump has committed obstruction of justice in trying to impede the probe.

WHAT DOES THE MEMO SAY?

The memo raised questions about what its Republican authors called “the legitimacy and legality” of FBI and Justice Department interactions with a special court to gain permission to eavesdrop on former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, an oil industry consultant with numerous contacts in Russia. It cited “a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses” related to the court, set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

While the memo focuses on an October 2016 court application for electronic surveillance of Page, it omits the fact that Page had come to the FBI’s attention much earlier, when he met in 2013 with Russians in New York who were officers of the Kremlin’s foreign intelligence service. 

Page also travelled to Moscow in July 2016, while he was a Trump campaign adviser, where he met a senior Russian official and gave a speech friendly to Russia. He again visited Moscow in December 2016, when he would have been under U.S. electronic surveillance.

The memo claims that a dossier of alleged Trump-Russia contacts compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and funded in part by U.S. Democrats formed an “essential part” of requests for electronic surveillance on Page that began in October 2016. Steele’s dossier contains a number of inflammatory and salacious allegations about Trump and his connections to Russia.

The memo said the initial application to the court and subsequent renewal applications did not mention the link between Steele and the Democrats. It also portrayed Steele as biased, saying he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

The big issue is whether Trump uses the memo as rational for firing Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in May 2017 after the president fired FBI Director James Comey and oversees Mueller’s work, or even for trying to oust Mueller himself.

Democrats said the memo mischaracterises highly sensitive classified information as part of a coordinated propaganda effort to discredit the FBI and Justice Department and terminate Mueller’s investigation, which potentially threatens Trump’s presidency.

House intelligence committee Democrats said Nunes refused to answer about whether the Republican staff who wrote the memo had coordinated its drafting with the White House.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign using hacking and propaganda, an effort that eventually included attempting to tilt the race in Trump’s favour.

Republican Senator John McCain, a critic of Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the document’s release served no American interests -- “no party‘s, no president‘s, only Putin‘s.”

WHAT ARE OTHER POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF MEMO‘S RELEASE?

The memo’s release widened the divide between Democrats and Republicans and had the potential to diminish the credibility of congressional investigations into the Russia matter that are proceeding in parallel with Mueller’s probe.

Its release also could weaken long-standing cooperation between lawmakers and intelligence agencies, which have shared classified information with Congress with the understanding that it would never be made public.

Compiled by Patricia Zengerle, Will Dunham and Warren Strobel; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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