WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The hot topic at congressional Republicans’ annual policy retreat that began Thursday is not infrastructure, immigration, or even tax cuts — it’s “The Memo.”
While Republicans are dutifully attending seminars in a West Virginia mountain resort on reforming the government and overhauling the nation’s roads, bridges, and airports, they’re also waging a preemptive spin war on the upcoming release of a classified memo that they say will call into question the integrity of unnamed senior FBI officials.
The extent to which the memo dominated the conversation on the Republican lawmakers’ first full day at their resort getaway shows how the effort by the president and his allies in Congress to fight back against the Russia investigation threatens to eclipse all else.
“There were some very poor decisions made at very senior level positions within the FBI and DOJ that fundamentally undermine who we are as a nation,” North Carolina Republican Representative Mark Meadows, chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus group, told reporters Thursday at the historic Greenbrier resort nestled in the Appalachian Mountains.
Representative Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “People in some of the highest levels of the bureau” need to be investigated.
While they seemed to agree that the memo was the focus of their current ire, Republicans are not entirely on the same script. Members of the House and Senate, and White House officials, issued conflicting demands and offered different interpretations of the document, which many lawmakers have not read. Democrats are cranking up their outrage over GOP attacks on the federal government’s most important law enforcement institutions that are responsible for keeping the nation safe against all manner of threats, including violent criminals and terrorists.
“We think this is really a big, big deal,” Representative Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said of the memo. “We don’t want to take anything off message for other great things that are happening, but this is really problematic.”
President Trump made no mention of the memo, written by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, on Thursday when he addressed lawmakers in a buoyant, half-hour-long speech celebrating his first year in office. But as soon as the president left, a senior administration official confirmed to reporters aboard Air Force One that he planned to authorize the memo’s release as soon as Friday.
“The president is OK with it,” the official, who declined to be named on the record, told reporters. “I doubt there will be any redactions.”
The New York Times reported Thursday that the memo alleges a highly classified FISA warrant in October 2016, obtained to conduct electronic surveillance on former Trump campaign aide Carter Paige for ties to Russia, was based on intelligence from a dossier created by Christopher Steele, whose opposition research on Trump was bankrolled first by a conservative news site and then a Democratic law firm linked to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
GOP lawmakers scheduled the Greenbrier gathering to discuss their agenda for the coming year, which includes addressing the president’s call for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package. Republicans passed a significant tax cut last year but now face the prospect of a difficult midterm election. The memo is one defense to the drip of bad news about the investigation into Trump, who remains unpopular in polls and could drag down lawmakers’ reelection campaigns.
House Speaker Paul Ryan attempted to push back against the perception that Republicans are undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, or to malign federal law enforcement officials in general.
“Let me tell you what this memo is and what this memo is not,” Ryan said in a press conference at Greenbrier Thursday. “What the memo is, is Congress doing its job in conducting oversight to a very unique law, FISA.” FISA refers to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to spy on US citizens and foreigners with warrants from a secret court.
“What this is not is an indictment of the FBI, the Department of Justice,” Ryan said. “The vast majority of the men and women at the FBI are doing a great job.”
Ryan stressed the document must be “scrubbed” of any mention of underlying sources or methods. But Perry, the Pennsylvania Republican, said he wanted the underlying documents released with the memo for all to see.
“Otherwise the other side is just going to say this is political,” Perry said.
While the 3½-page document is creating a media firestorm and dominating conversations at the retreat, many lawmakers are still trying to determine how to react. Senators remained pretty much in the dark about its contents, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
“I haven’t seen the memo, and I don’t know what’s in it,” said GOP Senator James Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “There’s been a lot of conversation about who gets to see it.”
Asked if releasing the memo could reduce trust in law enforcement, Lankford said he didn’t know. “I hear the rumors and such around it, but I have no idea,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers have accused Republicans of pushing half-baked conspiracy theories in order to discredit Mueller’s investigation into the Trump administration and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, called the memo “an effort to protect the president at any cost.” Some Democrats believe the drama created by the memo is a deliberate effort to lay the groundwork for Trump to fire Mueller.
Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer sent separate letters to Ryan Thursday calling upon him to remove Nunes from his spot as Intelligence chair. The FBI, headed by Trump appointee Christopher Wray, said in a statement it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The memo is just the latest battle in a war against the leadership of the FBI waged by a faction of House Republicans, one that has recently gone mainstream within the party. Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, told Fox News last month the FBI was rife with “corruption” because of a text message between two officials that mentioned a “secret society.” He later conceded that this text was likely a joke. One of those FBI officials, former counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, was removed from Mueller’s probe when text messages requested by multiple congressional committees appeared to show personal bias against Trump.
Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chair, renewed his call for a second special counsel to investigate “what actually went on” in the FBI and Justice Department during its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server. That subject is already the focus of an investigation by the inspector general for the Justice Department.
A handful of Republicans urged caution about the memo’s release, especially before the Senate has had a chance to examine it.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee needs to see it,” said Senator John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership and one of the few Republican voices calling for caution on the memo. “I think they have to take into consideration what the FBI is saying. If there are things that need to be redacted, I think they need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say on how this bears on national security.”