Trump stalls — for now — on approving Democratic response to disputed GOP memo on Russia probe

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump faces a deadline Friday for deciding whether to approve or oppose the release of a memo from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.
  • The Democrats' memo rebuts an incendiary memorandum from their Republican colleagues.
  • Trump said the GOP memo "totally vindicates" him from the special counsel investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) looks on as fellow Democrats speak about recent revelations about President Donald Trump's involvement with Russia on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. May 17, 2017.
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

President Donald Trump, facing a looming deadline Friday, said he will "soon" release a letter on the question of whether to approve the release of a memorandum from House Democrats rebutting a controversial Republican memo.

But Trump did not indicate if he would sign off on disclosing the memo, which disputes GOP claims that alleged bias against Trump influenced the FBI's probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The House Intelligence Committee unanimously approved on Monday night the disclosure of the Democratic minority's memo.

Trump has until Friday to either approve the memo's release, oppose it, or call for its release with certain redactions.

That document is expected to challenge a central claim of the GOP memo: that selectively presented information from a largely unverified dossier was used as the basis for extending surveillance warrants against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

The dossier was funded in part by the Democratic National Committee and written by former British spy Christopher Steele for the political research firm Fusion GPS.

Steele had claimed Russia had compromising material about Trump as a result of a visit Trump made to Moscow before becoming president. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI are investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election that ended with Trump's victory, and are also probing whether the president obstructed justice in that investigation.

People close to the White House told The New York Times that Trump will likely allow the Democratic memo to be made public, albeit with redactions.

Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, told reporters Tuesday that the Democrats' memo is "a lot less clean" than the one released last week by committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

Trump has said the heavily disputed GOP memo "totally vindicates" him in the special counsel's investigation.

Trump tweet "totally vindicates"

While many Republicans agreed — including Nunes — others were quick to dispute that the memo was as significant as Trump claimed.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., was the only member of the committee cleared to actually read the underlying court documents on which the memo was based.

After the memo was released, Gowdy tweeted that it does "not — in any way — discredit his investigation," referring to Mueller.

Trey Gowdy tweet

Nunes never read the underlying documents before writing the memo. Instead, he relied on what Gowdy had told him about those documents.

Page had been a subject of interest by the FBI since 2013 — long before Steele wrote his dossier — because of Page's close ties with Russia.

And the GOP memo corroborates reporting from The New York Times that remarks made by former Trump advisor George Papadopoulos — not the Steele dossier — were the primary catalyst for initiating the Russia probe. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents and is cooperating with the investigation.

The Republican memo was released over the objections of Democratic members of the committee and intelligence agencies, who disputed the claims that Mueller's probe is unwarranted. The Justice Department called releasing the memo "extraordinarily reckless."

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee's ranking member, railed against his Republican colleagues, arguing that their memo "misrepresents highly classified information" from secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, which will ultimately have a chilling effect on U.S. agencies' willingness to share classified information with Congress.

The GOP memo has already had a tangible impact on the procedures Congress follows when disclosing classified documents.

To expedite the release of the memo, the majority used a decades-old committee rule, which allowed it to vote for disclosure and then send the document to Trump, who had five days to decide whether or not it should be released.

The rule, which had never before been applied to a disclosure of classified information, now has been used twice: once by Republicans to release their memo, and once again on Monday by Democrats seeking the release of their own memo.

CNBC has reached out to the White House and the House Intelligence Committee for comment.