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House committee votes to release 'secret memo' that pits Sean Hannity against Shepard Smith

The Nunes memo has been controversial. What is it?

Fox News host Sean Hannity (left) called out colleague Shepard Smith as “anti-Trump” during his syndicated radio show Monday afternoon.
Fox News host Sean Hannity (left) called out colleague Shepard Smith as “anti-Trump” during his syndicated radio show Monday afternoon.Read moreCBS / AP File Photos

The House Intelligence Committee voted Monday to publicly release a controversial memo written by a Republican congressional ally of President Trump. The classified memo has garnered significant coverage in conservative media for its purported allegations of serious abuses by the FBI in the investigation of Russian meddling during the 2016 election.

But with few details about its contents available, the memo's potential release is garnering criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, including members of Trump's own administration.

President Trump has five days to decide whether to declassify the memo and make it public.

As of Monday evening, not much had been released regarding the exact details of the classified memo, which was spearheaded by Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. According to the New York Times, a key component of the memo is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's approval to extend surveillance of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page shortly after Rosenstein assumed his position in April.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, a Trump appointee, said last week he was "currently unaware of any wrongdoing related to the FISA process." And according to the Times, there is no indication that either the FBI or the Department of Justice acted improperly while attempting to secure the surveillance warrant on Page. Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said Republicans like Nunes have "selectively and misleadingly" characterized classified information "in an effort to protect the president at any cost."

But that hasn't stopped conservative news outlets like Fox News and Breitbart from hyping the classified memo and urging for its release, even though Boyd said doing so without a proper review by the Justice Department would be "extraordinarily reckless."

"The pro-Trump media is escalating its war on Robert Mueller. One of their weapons is confusion. So, the challenge for you and for me is to refuse to be confused," CNN host and former New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter said on his Reliable Sources show on Sunday.

So, in that vein, here's what we know about the classified memo:

Steele dossier

The main thrust of the conservative narrative surrounding the memo is that it reportedly purports to show that FBI officials failed to reveal that one of its sources for the continued surveillance of Pag was a dossier authored by former MI-6 agent Christopher Steele, whose work was funded in part by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign (though it began  under the auspices of a conservative website funded in large part by Republican donor and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer).

But Steele's employer testified to Congress that the FBI already had some of the same information that was included in the dossier, which they said came from a source inside the Trump campaign. The FBI itself has said the warrant was based on information provided from a variety of sources that showed Page may have been acting as an agent of the Russian government. And the New York Times has reported that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos garnered the FBI's interest after bragging about Russian intelligence on Clinton to an Australian diplomat in May 2016.

It’s been hyped on Fox News

The existence of the classified memo has been a popular topic for opinion hosts like Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson. Sean Hannity, one of Trump's most consistent media allies, claimed the classified memo is an example of an "attempted coup" of Trump by an FBI and Justice Department controlled by a so-called "deep state." Hannity has repeatedly called Mueller's investigation "corrupt and biased" and has openly encouraged the president (whom he regularly advises) to fire the special counsel.

But on the news side of the network, hosts like Shepard Smith have spent time debunking the hype surrounding the memo. On his show Thursday, Smith said "a memo can be a weapon of partisan mass distraction," adding that "it behooves the man in charge ​for supporters to believe the institutions can't be trusted, investigators are corrupt, and the news media are liars."

It's important to point out that Hannity and other hosts have pushed several conspiracy theories that have been debunked in recent days, including claims of a "secret society" within the FBI determined to bring down the president (based on a joke between FBI agent Peter Strzok and his romantic partner, FBI lawyer Lisa Page) and hyping up a purported massive coverup to hide missing text messages from investigators (it was a computer glitch that impacted more than 10,000 agents).

#ReleaseTheMemo pushed by Russian bots

Conservatives and members of Trump's inner circle (including Donald Trump Jr.) have sent tweets urging the release of Nunes' memo using the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag. But in recent days, Russia-linked networks on Twitter were also promoting the hashtag, according to the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy. Russian bots and trolls had previously  promoted the #SchumerShutdown hashtag.

Rosenstein in the crosshairs

Last week, CNN reported that Trump has been indicating to staff he wants Rosenstein removed, reportedly making comments like "let's fire him, let's get rid of him" before his advisers convinced him it would be a bad idea. Trump is being egged on by Fox News hosts like Hannity, who earlier Monday morning said, "Frankly, Rod Rosenstein needs to be fired."

Rosenstein, a Republican and Philadelphia native who Trump himself nominated for deputy attorney general, has been under pressure ever since appointing Mueller and giving him the broad mandate to get to the bottom of what happened in regards to the Trump campaign, Russian meddling during the elections and any other issues that "arose or may arise." The decision to appoint Mueller fell on Rosenstein due to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who worked on Trump's campaign.

"I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted back in June, after Rosenstein appointed Mueller.