U.S. President Donald Trump has made no secret of the fact he considers the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 elections a sham and a witch hunt.
Now he and his allies are pursuing a new strategy to undermine the probe: discredit the investigators.
On Monday, Republican lawmakers did something unprecedented. They invoked a little-known rule that had never been used in the 41-year history of the House Intelligence Committee to approve the release of a contentious memo containing highly classified material.
The memo, which was prepared by Republican staffers, reportedly alleges that law enforcement officials improperly initiated surveillance on an American citizen connected to the Russia probe. Republicans voted to make it public even though the Department of Justice had warned that such a move would be "extraordinarily reckless."
At the same time, Republican lawmakers declined to endorse the public release of a rebuttal to their memo compiled by Democratic members of the committee. Now Mr. Trump can decide to release the original Republican memo any time in the next five days – and he is reportedly eager to do so.
The conflict over the memo comes as the relationship between the White House and law enforcement agencies is starting to resemble open hostility. Mr. Trump has publicly castigated both the FBI and the Justice Department for months over their handling of the Russia investigation, saying the probe is a hoax generated by his political adversaries. On Monday, one target of his ire – FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe – abruptly stepped down.
Mr. Trump is also reportedly furious with Rod Rosenstein, the number two official at the Justice Department. Mr. Rosenstein, a long-serving federal prosecutor originally appointed by a Republican president, oversees the Russia investigation spearheaded by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Mr. Trump sought last year to remove Mr. Mueller from his post, according to The New York Times. (Later in the summer, a senior FBI agent was removed from the Russia investigation when it emerged he had sent text messages critical of Mr. Trump.)
The pressure from the White House on law enforcement officials is intensifying. Christopher Wray, the FBI Director, reportedly threatened to resign over White House demands to remove his deputy. According to Bloomberg News, John Kelly, Mr. Trump's chief of staff, held meetings and phone calls last week with senior Justice Department officials to "convey Trump's displeasure and lecture them on the White House's expectations," Bloomberg reported.
Such interference in the operation of law enforcement agencies – which had a long and hard-won tradition of functioning independently of the White House – marks another example of Mr. Trump's disregard for democratic norms.
Meanwhile, if Mr. Trump decides to release the GOP memo, he will be acting against the express wishes of his own Justice Department. In a letter last week, a senior Justice Department official said that making the classified document public would risk damaging the ability of the U.S. to receive sensitive intelligence from allied governments.
The memo reportedly accuses the FBI and Justice Department of relying on flawed information to justify the surveillance of Carter Page, an adviser to the Trump campaign who met repeatedly with Russian officials. It alleges that the surveillance request relied on information from a dossier prepared by a former British spy who was conducting "opposition research" on Mr. Trump.
The lawmakers who voted to create the current House Intelligence Committee in 1977 would be "aghast at what is happening now," said Mark Zaid, a lawyer in Washington who focuses on national security cases. "This is not oversight, this is an agenda" based on partisan politics, he said. If the committee's true aim is transparency, Mr. Zaid said, then it should have also approved the release of the Democratic rebuttal memo.
Mike Rogers, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview Monday with CNN that his former colleagues were making "a serious mistake." The process of initiating surveillance on an American citizen is a complicated one that involves seeking an order from a judge in a special court set up for that purpose.
If Republican lawmakers contend that someone deliberately undermined that process, then "releasing a memo is almost farcical," Mr. Rogers said. "If that's what you believe, then you launch a full investigation, you get all the facts before you release something."
Monday's vote by the committee to approve the memo's release was a "very short-sighted attempt to protect Trump at almost any cost," said Mieke Eoyang, a national security expert and a former Democratic staff member on the House Intelligence Committee. "It's very dangerous when the folks doing intelligence oversight are playing a political game rather than stepping back and focusing on national security."
At least a few Republicans agreed. The memo itself is much less important than the fact that some GOP lawmakers are "now at war with our own law enforcement and intelligence community, something in a lifetime of being a Republican I never expected to see," Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, wrote on Twitter. "This will end badly."