Updated 6:47 a.m., Feb. 10 | Despite his commitment earlier Friday, President Donald Trump is blocking release of a Democratic House Intelligence Committee memo rebutting one from the Republican side, and senior Democrats are now accusing him of a "cover up."
The Russia matter took an incredible new turn Friday night when Trump's top White House lawyer informed the House Intelligence Committee that the president could not allow the Democrats' document to be made public “because the memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages."
The Democrats’ memo offers a counter to a GOP document made public last Friday - with the president's backing - claiming abuses by the FBI and Justice Department in the early phases of the Russia probe. Senior Democratic members blasted Trump's refusal to release it after clearing a GOP memo last week, which the panel's Republican chairman quickly made public, arguing the FBI and Justice Department improperly obtained a surveillance on then-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in the early phases of the Russia probe.
The letter from White House Counsel Donald McGahn to House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes states the Justice Department “has identified portions of the February 5th memorandum the disclosure of which it believes would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests.”
“Although the president is inclined to declassify the February 5th memorandum, because the memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time,” McGahn told the committee.
Still, “given the public interest in transparency in these unprecedented circumstances, the president has directed that the Justice Department personnel be available to give technical assistance to the committee, should the committee wish to revisit the February 5th memorandum to mitigate the risks identified by the department.”
Trump “encourages” the House Intelligence panel “to undertake these efforts,” McGahn wrote, adding “the executive branch stands ready to review any subsequent draft of the February 5th memorandum for declassification at the earliest opportunity.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s refusal to release the memo “a stunningly brazen attempt to cover up the truth about the Trump-Russia scandal from the American people.” She said in a statement his decision was “part of a dangerous and desperate pattern of cover-up on the part of the President. Clearly, the President has something to hide.”
“The U.S. intelligence community has concluded, and members of Trump’s cabinet agree, that the Russians interfered in our election and plan to do so again. America’s intelligence and national security are being politicized. Why won’t the President put our country before his personal and political interests?” the California Democrat said.
Democrats also said it was questionable that the White House sent the Democratic memo back to the panel's Republican majority, rather than submit it to ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif. He fired off a tweet noting the FBI and Justice Department had warned Trump against releasing a GOP memo compiled by Nunes and his staff accusing those very agencies of abusing their power in the early phases of the Russia election meddling probe.
After ignoring urging of FBI & DOJ not to release misleading Nunes memo because it omits material facts, @POTUS now expresses concerns over sharing precisely those facts with public and seeks to send it back to the same Majority that produced the flawed Nunes memo to begin with: pic.twitter.com/qNVyS99eXs— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) February 10, 2018
Schiff warned Monday night after the Intelligence panel voted unanimously to clear the Democratic memo for release pending Trump's review that the White House most likely would allow it to be released - but with large portions blacked out. Such redactions are made to prevent classified national security information from being visible to the country's enemies.
Earlier Friday, Trump said he had signed off on the memo’s release. But White House officials later wavered, saying the president had not made a final decision on whether to clear the Democrats’ response to the GOP memo that alleged abuse by FBI and DOJ officials in the early days of the Russia probe.
Around midday, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during an unplanned public event with the day’s media pool that the would be clearing the document for release.
Trump indicated he had signed off on the release of the House Intelligence Committee Democrats’ memo that offers a counter to a GOP document made public last Friday claiming abuses by the FBI and Justice Department in the early phases of the Russia probe.
“It’s going to be released soon,” Trump said. “We’re going to be releasing a letter soon.”
After reporters had left the Oval Office, the president huddled with some of his top national security and law enforcement advisers.
“This afternoon, the president met with the director of the FBI, the principal associate deputy attorney general, and the White House Counsel’s Office to discuss the memorandum from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and receive their input,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said in a statement.
Multiple White House aides have not responded to inquiries about what changed after the West Wing meeting.
A White House official around 4 p.m. Friday told Roll Call and several other publications that Trump’s reference to a “letter” was just him being loose with nomenclature. She gave no indication he might block release of the document.
There was a meeting about an hour earlier in the West Wing about the fate of the Democratic memo. About two and a half hours later came Shah’s statement. Friday is the fifth day of a five-day presidential review period a Monday evening unanimous vote by the full House Intelligence Committee set in motion.
White House aides have said all week the president has been hearing from a range of opinions about its contents and what he should decide to do with it — a list that includes keeping it classified, releasing it as-is, or making it public with any sensitive parts blacked out. At the same time, Trump and his senior staff were shuffling through their collective response to an abuse scandal that forced former Staff Secretary Rob Porter from his post.
“We’ll get some people down to brief him on it,” Kelly said. One was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who some Democrats and Trump critics have warned the president might fire, using the GOP memo as justification.
“He met with the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, within the last hour to discuss some of the differences between the two memos,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday afternoon. “When [the review is] completed, the president will be given a thorough briefing on the findings of the different organizations and stakeholders that are involved, and will make a determination at that time.”