As White House lawyers pored over a memo on Wednesday that contains allegations of government surveillance abuse, they may well have been preparing to do battle with the agency investigating President Trump over alleged Russian collusion.
The FBI said Wednesday that it has "grave concerns" about releasing the Republican-authored memo, which the House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines this week to release. FBI Director Christopher Wray viewed the document Sunday on Capitol Hill, one day before the committee's vote sent the memo to the White House for further review, and reportedly visited the White House on Monday in an effort to persuade Trump's aides not to approve the memo's release.
Meanwhile, Democrats claimed on Wednesday evening that Republicans on the intelligence panel had significantly altered the document after voting for its publication but before sending it to the White House for review, creating uncertainty about whether the White House can or should make public the disputed claims of surveillance abuse in the memo. The FBI has said the memo omits information that would provide more context to the reported allegation that Justice Department officials improperly renewed a warrant to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.
But Republicans argued that the edits to the document were grammatical fixes and changes requested by the FBI, as well as committee Democrats themselves, therefore the vote to release it was "procedurally sound." Trump suggested Tuesday that he was "100 percent" confident that the White House would make the controversial memo public.
Chief of staff John Kelly predicted Wednesday that the administration would be "pretty quick" to release the memo, setting the White House up for another potential showdown with the Justice Department over something related to the Russia investigation.
"The [president] is caught in a 'catch 22.' If he does not allow the release of the memo, surely the media will allege 'Aha! What does he have to hide?' And if he does, what will be the fallout, because the memo on its face must be put into context and explained or spun," said Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist.
Blakeman said the FBI is likely concerned that the "dirty laundry" described in the memo could "reflect badly" on the bureau.
"The American people have heard so much about the memo and the mystery swirling around it that it makes sense to release it," he added. "I just hope the Republicans in Congress are prepared with a detailed briefing to explain it, allowing Q&A as well by the press."
A spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee did not respond to a request for comment on whether the panel would conduct a press conference or offer briefings to explain the context surrounding the memo if the White House allowed its release.
After Republican members voted to publish the document on Monday, Trump had five days to decide whether he should prevent it from coming out or allow its publication. Kelly said Wednesday that White House lawyers are presently examining the document to ensure the administration does not compromise any sensitive information by releasing it.
Staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., authored the memo, which sat for weeks in a secure location on Capitol Hill while members of Congress battled over its future.
Democrats, led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., have described the document as misleading and argued GOP aides twisted the underlying intelligence in order to create a false narrative about FBI corruption.
Many of the Republican members who read the memo, however, said they saw troubling allegations of bias within the four, highly classified pages they voted to release on Monday.
Trump has claimed for nearly a year that corruption existed in the FBI under the Obama administration. He first raised the issue in March 2017 when he tweeted a since-disputed assertion that former President Barack Obama had "wiretapped" Trump Tower during the presidential race.
The ensuing dust-up over how carefully White House aides had vetted Trump's sensational accusation cast a shadow over Nunes's efforts several weeks later to publicize information that could have been interpreted as a vindication of the tweet.
Nunes raced to the White House in late March to inform Trump and reporters that his committee had found evidence of improper unmasking within intelligence reports compiled by Obama administration officials. Unmasking occurs when an American official requests to reveal the identities of U.S. citizens whose communications are collected inadvertently through surveillance on a foreign target.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman said he had seen indications that Obama administration officials may have improperly requested and received approval to "unmask" Trump associates during the presidential campaign and transition. Later, Nunes noted his committee had seen connections between dubious unmasking requests made by the Obama administration and leaks to the press of classified information related to those requests — including, in some cases, the names of the Trump associates whose communications had been swept up through incidental collection.
Democrats have argued the GOP's focus on the memo is merely an effort to distract from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians.
But the White House has worked recently to promote the extent to which Trump and his aides have cooperated with investigators, including by providing the FBI with more than 20,000 pages of documents and making nearly two dozen administration officials available for interviews.
Trump's legal team has even begun negotiations with Mueller to make the president himself available for an interview with investigator in the coming weeks, a sign that the probe could be reaching its peak.
Because the Nunes memo relies heavily on classified information to draw its conclusions, members who viewed it have been prohibited from discussing its contents.
However, the document reportedly mentions Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe in its description of the way the Justice Department went about securing a warrant to wiretap Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
McCabe left the bureau on Monday amid reports that a forthcoming Justice Department inspector general report would allege that his pro-Hillary Clinton bias caused him to slow-walk aspects of the FBI's criminal investigation into Clinton's mishandling of classified information.
Republicans have long speculated that the Obama administration's Justice Department used opposition research funded by Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee to obtain surveillance warrants on Page during the campaign and even to begin the investigation that ultimately mushroomed into Mueller's Russia probe.
The Clinton campaign and the DNC hired a firm, Fusion GPS, to dig up dirt on Trump, and that firm in turn hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy with pre-existing connections to the FBI. Steele then authored a now-infamous dossier of largely unverified claims about Trump, his associates, and their ties to Russia.
Steele ultimately brought the dossier to the FBI in 2016, and it remains unclear whether his Clinton-funded claims sparked the Russia inquiry. It is also unclear whether the Nunes memo will shed any light on the role the Steele dossier played in the FISA application for surveillance on Page.
Trump and his allies appeared this week to favor publishing the memo despite opposition from Democrats and the Justice Department. Critics have argued the release of the memo is intended to create a pretext for removing Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May of last year and who has reportedly drawn the ire of Trump through his handling of the explosive Russia probe.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters after his previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. came to light last year. That decision strained Sessions' relationship with the president who appointed him.
Sessions has not commented on whether he supports Trump's push to release the memo that his Justice Department wants to keep under wraps.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.