WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray clashed publicly with the president for the first time Wednesday, condemning a push by House Republicans to release a secret memo that purports to show how the bureau and the Justice Department abused their authorities to obtain a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser.
The “FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the bureau said in a statement. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Though Wray’s name was not attached to the statement, the high-profile comment by the FBI thrust him into a confrontation with President Trump, who last year abruptly fired his predecessor, James Comey. Trump wants to see the memo released, telling people close to him that he believes it makes the case that FBI and Justice Department officials acted inappropriately when they sought the highly classified warrant in October 2016 on the campaign adviser, Carter Page.
The president’s stance puts him at odds with much of his national security establishment. The Justice Department has warned repeatedly that the memo, prepared by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, is misleading and that its release would set a bad precedent for making government secrets public. FBI officials have said privately that the president is prioritizing politics over national security and is putting the bureau’s reputation at risk.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican who is chairman of the House committee, described the FBI objections as “spurious” and accused the two law enforcement agencies of making “material omissions” to Congress and the courts.
“It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign,” Nunes said in a prepared statement. “Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again.”
People who have read the 3½-page memo say it contends that officials from the FBI and the Justice Department were not forthcoming to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge in seeking the warrant. It says that the officials relied on information assembled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, without adequately explaining to the judge that Democrats had financed the research.
Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker, had been on authorities’ radar for years. He had visited Moscow in July 2016 and was preparing to return there that December when investigators obtained the warrant in October 2016.
The memo has come to the forefront in a string of attempts by Trump’s allies to shift attention from the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling and toward the actions of the investigators themselves. Republicans in Congress and in conservative media have asserted that the memo will show political bias in the early stages of the Russia investigation.
The Republican-led Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday night to release it, invoking an obscure, never-before-used House rule to sidestep the usual back-and-forth between lawmakers and the executive branch over the government’s most closely held secrets. Democrats on the committee objected and have prepared their own 10-page point-by-point rebuttal of the Republican document. The committee voted against releasing the Democrats’ memo publicly.
Under the rule, Trump has five days to try to stop the release for national security reasons.
Democrats have called the Republican document a dangerous effort to build a narrative to undercut the department’s investigation into whether Trump’s associates colluded with Russians and whether Trump obstructed justice. They say it uses cherry-picked facts assembled with little or no context and could do lasting damage to faith in federal law enforcement.
Wray had strongly objected to the move to release the memo and was allowed to review it only Sunday, after Nunes relented.
Wray made a last-ditch effort Monday, going to the White House with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to try to persuade the White House to stop the release of the memo. They spoke to John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, but were unsuccessful.
In late September, Wray said in a speech in Washington that the FBI would abide by the rule of law and that wouldn’t change as long as he was director. He also said the FBI would not bow to intimidation.
“We’re going to follow the facts independently,” he said, “no matter where they lead, no matter who likes it.”