The contents of a secretive memo being circulated by Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill were finally made public on Sunday, after sources spoke with The New York Times and laid them out in detail. For the most part, the report appears to back what Democrats have contended: that the memo is comprised of “cherry-picked” facts meant to paint the Justice Department — which is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials — in a bad light.
The memo, which Republicans have called “shocking,” “troubling,” and “worse than Watergate,” reportedly focuses on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was appointed in April 2017. The Times report states that the memo shows Rosenstein “approved an application to extend surveillance” on former Trump campaign associate Carter Page, a subject in the ongoing Russia investigation, shortly after taking office.
As the Times notes, the surveillance renewal simply proves that the Justice Department, under Rosenstein’s guidance, “saw reason to believe that [Page] was acting as a Russian agent.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who supported President Trump during the 2016 election, recused himself from the Russia investigation in March last year.
Republicans, however, have said the memo is proof of corruption at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Until this week, the few Democrats who had actually seen the memo claimed that Republicans had carefully omitted certain information to throw the Justice Department’s Russia probe into question.
“…The reference to Mr. Rosenstein’s actions in the memo — a much-disputed document that paints the investigation into Russian election meddling as tainted from the start — indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the inquiry,” the report states.
According to the sources who spoke with the Times, the Republican assertion is that Rosenstein — a former member of the Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton — failed to communicate to the surveillance court judge that the Justice Department request to continue monitoring Page’s actions was based on information produced by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who was hired by Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to seek out opposition research on Trump’s team. Steele was also retained by the research firm Fusion GPS, on behalf of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, early on in the campaign. (Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, has repeatedly claimed that the decision to launch the Russia investigation was not based on information gleaned from his firm’s and Steele’s research.)
The memo also implies that Rosenstein “failed to properly vet a highly sensitive application for a warrant to spy on Mr. Page.” However, as the Times points out, “no information has publicly emerged” proving Rosenstein or the Justice Department did anything wrong in seeking to extend surveillance on Page, who testified before the House Intelligence Committee in November that he had contact with Russian officials during his time as a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign.
Monday’s revelation is the the latest indication that Republican are trying to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible Russian collusion within the Trump campaign, which has been heating up over the past few months.
In July last year, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about campaign communications with the Russians. Then, in October, Mueller’s office indicted former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates on several charges, including money laundering, operating as unregistered foreign agents for the Ukraine, and conspiracy against the United States. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December and is reportedly cooperating with Mueller’s team. On Tuesday last week, the Times reported that Mueller’s team had interviewed both Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey in relation to the Russia investigation as well.
On Monday, one day after the contents of the disputed Republican memo came to light, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Politico that “end-of-the-year document dumps” had produced “very significant” information relevant to the committee’s Russia probe.
“We’ve had new information that raises more questions,” Warner said in an interview, explaining that the committee was looking to corroborate or debunk those leads. He added that attempts by Republicans to impede the separate special counsel investigation were a clear sign that “Mueller is getting closer and closer to the truth.”
Republicans have indeed been upping their efforts to discredit Mueller, whose investigation is seen as a threat to the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. Late last year, conservatives, including White House lawyer Ty Cobb and the president’s personal counsel, Jay Sekulow, lobbied for a second special investigation into Mueller’s team, citing a series of text messages between FBI agents team members Peter Strzok and Lisa Page from 2016, which were critical of then-candidate Trump. Strzok was dismissed from the investigation after the messages first came to Mueller’s attention last summer. Page had already completed her work for the team by that point.
“The conflicts of interest here and the impropriety is a very serious concern,” Sekulow said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “You have to look at all of 2016 and what was going on in the Department of Justice.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) went so far as to suggest that there was more to Strzok’s firing than the Justice Department had claimed. “There’s just no way it’s just anti-Trump text messages that got Peter Strzok — Mr. James Bond super agent — kicked off Mueller’s team,” he told the L.A. Times.
On Thursday last week, The New York Times also reported that in June 2017, Trump, frustrated with the special counsel’s momentum, had considered firing Rosenstein, who had appointed Mueller to lead the investigation. In the end, he turned his sights on Mueller, hoping to dismiss the special counsel and end the Russia investigation, but later backed down after White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to leave.
In a statement to the Times this week, a White House spokesperson responded to the most recent reports, saying, “The president has been clear publicly and privately that he wants absolute transparency throughout this process. Based on numerous news reports, top officials at the F.B.I. have engaged in conduct that shows bias against President Trump and bias for Hillary Clinton. While President Trump has the utmost respect and support for the rank-and-file members of the F.B.I., the anti-Trump bias at the top levels that appear to have existed is troubling.”