President Trump called for the public release of the controversial House Intelligence Committee memo on alleged surveillance abuses last week, even as his Justice Department warned against doing so without a proper review.
According to the Washington Post, White House chief of staff John Kelly talked with Attorney General Jeff Sessions twice about the matter on Wednesday, once in a small group meeting and another time over the phone.
This is the first known instance of the White House actively pushing for the memo's release. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters last week that the president supports "full transparency" when it comes to the memo, but declined to directly confirm Trump would allow its release.
A White House official nor the Justice Department did not return a request for confirmation or comment.
Republicans say the four-page memo, written by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes and staff, contains evidence of misuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which could undermine the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Reports have suggested the memo details how the FBI included false claims from "Trump dossier" author Christopher Steele about Trump associates' ties to Russia in an approved application to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, but current and former law enforcement officials have said much more information was also used to justify the surveillance application.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers, along with their allies in conservative media, have made a rallying call in recent weeks to release the memo, or #ReleaseTheMemo as the hashtag appears on social media. Some members have described its contents as "alarming" and "explosive."
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who spearheaded a letter signed by 65 lawmakers, calling on Nunes to release the memo, said the "overlay" of the memo and the missing text messages, now recovered, exchanged between two FBI agents who had been part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia inquiry team expressing anti-Trump bias gives way to a "time line is very interesting and tells quite a story."
Democrats meanwhile have dismissed its contents as nothing more than "talking points" and have complained that those contents, based on classified material from the Justice Department and FBI to which most members do not have access, are leading to a "false narrative" without the proper context.
Despite the revelation about Trump's directive in the Post report, the next move towards the memo's public release is on the House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes and the Republican majority in his committee already voted to make the memo available to the entire House, which has been viewed by more than 200 lawmakers. As Nunes has discussed with Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Bob Goodlatte, D-Va., the procedure to release the memo publicly, the committee has rejected overtures by the FBI and the Senate to make the document available to them.
On Wednesday, the same day Trump reportedly called for the memo's release, Stephen Boyd, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, wrote to Nunes warning that publicly releasing the memo without giving access to agency for review would be "extraordinarily reckless."
In spite of the opposition from the DOJ and Democrats, the Washington Examiner reported that Nunes' committee plans to vote on a public release next week, which could be unveiled the same time Democrats push out theirs to the entire House, which they say is a corrective to the GOP memo.
Should the intelligence panel give the OK to the Nunes memo, then Trump would have five days to block its unveiling to the public.
Reacting to the Post report on Saturday, Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman from the Obama era, took issue with Kelly discussing the memo with Sessions, as the attorney general has recused himself from all Russia-related investigations.
"Lot of alarming stuff in here, but one q: why is Sessions meeting with Kelly about the memo? He is recused from the investigation it relates to. You can't dip in and out of a recusal - it's absolute," Miller tweeted.
The report said Trump complained to aides about his lack of control over the Justice Department, lamenting how he is unable to give orders to “my guys" at what he sometimes refers to as the “Trump Justice Department."
The Post report comes on the heels of a bombshell New York Times report that said Trump ordered Mueller to be fired in June 2017, the same month it was being reported that the special counsel might also be looking into whether Trump obstructed justice. However, White House counsel Don McGahn refused to deliver the message to the DOJ, threatened to quit, and spoke of the dire consequences for Trump is such an order was carried out. Afterwards Trump declined to press the issue.