In an extraordinary public break with the White House, the FBI warned Wednesday that it has “grave concerns” about the accuracy of a disputed Republican memo on secret surveillance during the 2016 campaign that President Donald Trump has promised to release.
The FBI said it only had a “limited opportunity” to review the classified four-page memo prepared by aides to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close Trump ally who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the nation’s premier law enforcement agency said in a two-paragraph statement.
The public pushback escalates a bitter conflict between the White House and senior officials at the Justice Department, who approved the FBI statement, as well as senior figures in the intelligence community, who have previously warned that release of the classified GOP memo could endanger national security.
The FBI warning—which Nunes dismissed as “spurious objections”—raises the stakes in the growing Republican effort to discredit the criminal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether Trump or his aides collaborated with Russian meddling in the election or obstructed justice.
FBI leaders have clashed with presidents in the past, but usually behind closed doors. Historians struggled Wednesday to find a precedent for the bureau’s public challenge to the White House.
“It’s like a neon billboard blinking, ‘Danger, don’t you dare do this,’” said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor who studies the presidency. “This is a sign of war.”
The FBI decided to go public after FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising Mueller’s investigation, failed to convince the White House or House Republicans that the GOP memo is misleading and its underlying classified material should remain secret.
Wray was allowed to read the classified memo in a protected room Sunday but was not given an opportunity to suggest changes, according to two officials familiar with the process. He asked to make his case in a private briefing with House committee members, but that offer was declined.
The FBI statement was not issued in Wray’s name but from the bureau itself, an effort to defend an institution that Trump and his allies have said is part of a “deep state” conspiracy of entrenched national security officials to take down the president.
Trump has said the FBI’s reputation was “in tatters,” and he publicly berated FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who stepped down Monday before he had planned to retire. Trump also has repeatedly belittled Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the nation’s top lawman recused himself from the Russia investigation last year.
The latest clash is likely to erode Trump’s relationship with Wray. The president appointed Wray as FBI director after he fired James Comey last May for what the president later said was “this Russia thing.” Comey’s dismissal sparked a national uproar and led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
Despite Wray’s concerns about the memo, the GOP-led House committee voted along party lines Monday to release it. The committee voted against simultaneously releasing a written rebuttal from Democrats, who contend that the GOP memo deliberately misstates facts for partisan purposes.
The decision then moved to the White House, and Trump told a lawmaker after his State of the Union address Tuesday night that he was “100 percent” planning to release the memo. On Wednesday morning, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, said on Fox News Radio that the memo “will be released here pretty quick, I think, and the whole world can see it.”
The memo reportedly asserts the Justice Department misinformed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain a secret warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, an adviser in Trump’s campaign who had business ties to Russia, and that it shows the FBI has an anti-Trump bias.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who is ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he expects Trump to release the memo.
“There is only one criteria for the president,” he said. “Not what’s in the national interest, not what’s in the interests of justice, but what’s in his narrow personal interest.”
Later Wednesday, Schiff said Nunes “secretly altered” the memo before he sent it to the White House for review.
In a letter to Nunes, Schiff wrote that “material changes” were made to the document.
“The White House has … been reviewing a document since Monday night that the Committee never approved for public release,” Schiff wrote in his letter.
He did not say precisely what had changed in the memo or why it was significant.
A spokesman for Nunes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The accusation was the latest twist in the saga over the memo, which has become one of the more hotly contested sideshows to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign.
At issue is whether the FBI accurately described to the secret court information supplied by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative.
Steele had researched Trump’s connections to Russia for Fusion GPS, which was hired by Democrats to conduct opposition research, and his file later was leaked to the media in a now-notorious dossier.
Democrats and law enforcement officials say the four-page GOP memo “cherry-picks” information from a much longer application to the FISA court. Those documents typically run 50 to 60 pages, officials said.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the Nunes memo raises “legitimate questions about whether an American’s civil liberties were violated,” but he warned his colleagues against using it to target the special counsel.
“This is a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller’s investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to take its course,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday.