While some Republicans spent the weekend attempting to downplay links between a controversial memo and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russia collusion, others — including President Trump — have sought to use the memo as a vehicle for questioning the legitimacy of the Russia probe.
The conflicting responses to the memo — which Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., authored and fought for weeks to release — have highlighted lingering divisions among Republicans about how to approach the Russia controversy: with caution or with defiance.
And Trump’s claim that the memo “totally vindicates” him in the Russia investigation has put him at odds with members of his party who have warned against efforts to use the document’s findings against Mueller or to impugn the FBI as an organization.
“The memo was not exactly the smoking gun it was billed as by congressional Republicans, nor did the memo’s release threaten national security, as the Democrats and the FBI were bellowing,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “But it does confirm that the FBI was using the Steele dossier to obtain a FISA warrant on Carter [Page].”
The GOP-authored memo claimed the Justice Department had used a dossier of opposition research compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele in an application for a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee had paid for the creation of the Steele dossier, but the memo alleged the Justice Department did not disclose the political origins of the dossier when it sought to wiretap Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
A GOP operative said the “brilliance” of the way Republicans released the Nunes memo lies in the inability of the FBI or Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee to refute the document’s contents outright, because the underlying intelligence from which Republicans drew their conclusions remains highly classified. Democrats are pushing to release their own version of the memo — one they say will correct for a document that “mischaracterizes” the events surrounding the pursuit of Page’s FISA warrant — but remain bound by the laws governing classified information from refuting the specifics of the Nunes memo.
Some Republicans described the document as evidence of a specific instance of FISA abuse while discouraging the use of it for a broader indictment against the FBI.
“I actually don't think it has any impact on the Russia probe,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., of the Nunes memo on Sunday.
“There is a Russia investigation without a dossier,” Gowdy said during his appearance on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “It also doesn't have anything to do with obstruction of justice. So there's going to be a Russia probe, even without a dossier."
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, also broke on Sunday with the Republicans who had characterized the memo as evidence that Mueller’s investigation was founded on bias.
"I don't agree with some of my colleagues that say, who are always using the word 'explosive.' I'm not shocked that elected officials are using hyperbole and exaggerations," Hurd said during an appearance on ABC News’ “This Week.”
And House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has resisted efforts to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation, encouraging members to draw a distinction between the memo’s allegations and the Russia probe.
"I think because of all the loose political rhetoric floating around here, we need to make sure we explain that there is a separation between these things,” Ryan said during a press conference on Jan. 30.
But some Republicans and Trump allies have seized on the Nunes memo as proof of the Russia investigation’s partisan roots. Although the president had spent months declining to attack the special counsel or the probe itself — which he had once decried as a “witch hunt” — Trump went back on offense in the wake of the memo’s release by claiming senior Justice Department officials implicated in the document should be “ashamed” of themselves and once again describing the Russia probe as an “American disgrace.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., echoed Trump’s argument in a statement released Friday calling for “criminal prosecution” of senior Justice Department officials, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“This is third world politics where the official government agencies are used as campaign attack dogs,” Gosar said.
If the House Intelligence Committee votes in favor of the release of the Democratic memo, Trump will have five days to decide whether to block its publication. The White House has already signaled the administration’s willingness to allow the Democratic memo to be released.