WASHINGTON – The House Intelligence Committee voted Monday to release a memo detailing alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI and Justice Department, escalating a political fight between conservatives and the nation's intelligence agencies.
The vote, which proceeded along party lines in the Republican-controlled committee, now means that President Trump will have up to five days to review the material and decide whether to keep it secret, though he could agree to the release anytime before that deadline. If he does nothing, the committee can release the memo publicly.
The Justice Department and the FBI are likely to lobby Trump in the interim, hopeful he will prevent the memo's classified contents from becoming public beforelawyers for those agencies can review the material.
The intelligence committee also voted along party lines Monday against releasing a rebuttal memo from the panel's Democrats, who denounced both moves upon leaving the closed-door hearing.
"We had votes today to politicize the intelligence process," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., the committee's senior Democrat. He also said the committee is investigating the FBI and Justice Department, though a Republican disputed that characterization, saying that the panel is conducting oversight of those agencies.
Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said that if the president supports the memo's release, it could happen as soon as Tuesday. He said the Democrats' counter-argument also may be released soon, but that he believes more lawmakers should read it first.
A person familiar with the Democrats' document described it as a point-by-point rebuttal of the GOP memo about 10 pages long.
The Republicans' effort was led by the intelligence committee's chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), who was not immediately available to discuss Monday's vote. Since Congress began to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, Nunes has focused on alleged abuses of intelligence authorities by government agencies and former Obama administration officials.
The GOP memo has become a flash point in the political battle surrounding efforts to understand the scope of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether any of Trump's associates coordinated with the Kremlin. Republicans say the document shows the investigation may be tainted by political bias. Democrats call it a cynical attempt to undercut the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the law enforcement agencies behind him.
Current and former intelligence officials have expressed concern that releasing the memo will harm national security.
"I am heartsick, as should anyone be who cares about democracy and our nation's security," said Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA.
The vote occurred hours after FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe – who became a symbol for Trump of what he considers the bureau's political bias – abruptly stepped down. Though McCabe's departure was expected, the timing caught many by surprise. It followed a recent meeting with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray at which they discussed the findings of an ongoing internal probe into McCabe's handling of the bureau's investigations into Hillary Clinton, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump has attacked McCabe for more than a year, blaming him for what he called political decisions about investigations.
People familiar with the intelligence committee's memo say its main target is the FBI's relationship with Christopher Steele, a British ex-spy who was hired in 2016 by a Washington research firm to examine any connections between Trump and Russian leaders. The work, which was funded by Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, led to a dossier of allegations against Trump and some of his advisers – accusations the president has denied.
Within the FBI, some of Steele's work was eventually incorporated into a 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. Republican lawmakers have suggested that Steele provided bad information to the FBI, leading to a broader probe of Trump associates.
People familiar with the memo said it does not conclusively say whether Steele intentionally passed suspect information to the FBI, or simply made a mistake.
But even before Monday's vote, the memo has strained relations between the White House and the Justice Department, and the Justice Department and Congress.
The president wants the memo to go public. He has also told close advisers that the document is starting to make people realize how the FBI and the Mueller probe are biased against him, according to one person familiar with his remarks.
The Justice Department, however, has come out against the memo's release before the agency can review the classified material in it. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote to Congress last week, warning lawmakers that releasing the memo without giving the Justice Department and the FBI an opportunity to review it "would be extraordinarily reckless," because doing so could harm national security and ongoing investigations.
Since that letter was written, Wray was allowed to review the memo, though it has not been reviewed by the FBI's in-house lawyers, according to people familiar with the matter.