The White House declined on Friday to release a classified memo that reportedly would have offered a fuller picture of the FBI’s application for a FISA warrant to monitor a former Trump foreign policy adviser.
The memo—produced by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee—was written as a response to the Republican classified memo that was released on a party-line vote after approval from Trump last week. It was sent to the White House earlier this week with the request that it be similarly released. This time, White House Counsel Don McGahn responded to the committee by saying that “[a]lthough the President is inclined to declassify the February 5th Memorandum, because the Memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time.”
Trump’s “inability” to release this particular classified information appears entirely dependent on the president’s own personal determination of what information he considers “properly classified and especially sensitive.” The key claim in the previous memo—that FBI officials hid the fact that some information used to acquire a warrant to monitor Carter Page had come from a political source—has since been acknowledged as false by the main proponent of the memo, Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes.
Still, that memo has been held up by Trump and his allies as a reason to dismiss the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any potential collusion with Russia by his campaign. Earlier on Friday, Trump had said that he planned to release the new memo.
Instead, McGahn released a letter encouraging the Intelligence Committee to work with Department of Justice officials to amend the memo, “to mitigate the risks identified by the Department.”
The letter said the DOJ worried the memo’s release would create “especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests.” The White House went so far as to attach a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray requesting that portions of the memo not be released.
In their letter, Wray and Rosenstein said they had highlighted “information, the release of which would present concerns in light of longstanding principles regarding the protection of intelligence sources and methods, ongoing investigations, and other similarly sensitive information.”
“We have further identified, in red boxes, the subset of such information for which national security or law enforcement concerns are especially significant,” it continued.
When Rosenstein and Wray reportedly had similar objections to the release of the previous memo, those were ignored. Wray had gone so far as to have the FBI publicly release a letter saying the GOP memo was misleading. McGahn’s letter announcing the decision to release that memo merely said this about the DOJ’s and FBI’s response:
The White House review process also included input from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice. Consistent with this review and these standards, the President has determined that declassification of the Memorandum is appropriate.
After the release of the initial memo, Trump said it “totally vindicates” him, calling the behavior of DOJ officials cited in the memo—such as Rosenstein—a “disgrace,” and adding that “[a] lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that.”
The memo has been used by Republican officials to smear Rosenstein, who is in charge of overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russia saga. When he was asked last week by a reporter if he would fire Rosenstein after the memo’s release, Trump said cryptically “you figure that one out.”
On Friday, Rachel Brand, the No. 3 official at the Department of Justice—who would have been in line to take over should Rosenstein be fired or recuse himself from the Russia probe—announced she was quitting after less than a year on the job.
Ironically, it seems as though Wray’s and Rosenstein’s request to protect classified information that might be used to defend the FBI and the deputy attorney general has been used by the Trump administration as a justification not to release that information. Essentially, Trump’s White House is using the integrity of these two men as a shield to prevent the release of information that might both protect Rosenstein and support Wray’s heavily vilified bureau from the attacks of the backers of the previous memo, such as the president himself.
In that sense, the president seems to have been able to have his cake and eat it too.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus