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Conservative push for Nunes memo release draws Democratic rebuke

The seemingly imminent release of a controversial memo on the FBI's Russia investigation had both parties trading charges and counter-charges on Thursday. The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said that Republicans changed the memo before sending it to the White House, and that it could undermine the FBI. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The release of a hotly debated memo on the FBI’s Russia investigation appears imminent tonight. That prospect had Republicans and Democrats trading charges and countercharges throughout this day.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As congressional Republicans gather at a West Virginia retreat meant to tackle big goals, a controversial four-page memo is dominating the news, as Speaker Paul Ryan found at a news conference.

    Nearly every question was about the so-called Nunes memo, drafted by Republican staffers for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. It alleges FBI abuses of its surveillance powers, but its contents are classified and haven’t been made public.

    The committee has voted to make it public. And the White House, which must weigh in, indicated it will likely tell Congress tomorrow that it agrees with release.

    President Trump made no mention of the memo during his address at the GOP retreat today. But Democrats have been very vocal, with the ranking Democrat on House Intelligence, Adam Schiff, charging that Republicans changed the memo before sending it the White House to approve.

    Today in Philadelphia, blunt words from Schiff.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    What we don’t is, we don’t cherry-pick classified information and publish it to give the country a misleading impression to protect the president’s hide.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Schiff this could undermine the bureau’s ability to do its job.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    When the FBI fans out across the country and they’re investigating a terrorism case, are Americans going to think, what’s your agenda? There is so much hyperbole out there, that it’s going to cause a lot of Americans to question the very patriotic people who are working to protect the country every day.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Speaker Paul Ryan insisted insist the only changes to the memo were for national security reasons, and in consultation with the FBI. He says the memo alleges dangerous use of power by some at the agency.

  • Paul Ryan, R-Wis.:

     And if American civil liberties were abused, then that needs to come to light so that doesn’t happen again.

    What this is not is an indictment on our institutions of our justice system. This memo is not indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

     Still, another Republican, Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent, said he doesn’t think either the Republican memo or a countermemo by the Democrats should be made public.

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    I read both the memos. And I don’t think that we should use this for any kind of partisan advantage, either side. I think we should take a step back and not do anything for a partisan advantage that could risk a sensitive source or method.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference into the election brought another headline. The New York Times reported that a witness in the investigation is raising new allegations about White House Communications Director and longtime Trump aid Hope Hicks.

    The witness will reportedly talk about e-mails showing Donald Trump Jr. had interest in Russian information about Hillary Clinton during the campaign. The witness reportedly will testify that Hicks once said those e-mails — quote — “will never get out.” An attorney for Hicks denied she ever said that.

    And here in West Virginia, we just have more news from the Republican retreat. In the last few minutes, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has come out saying that he also doesn’t think this Republican memo should be released at this time — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Lisa, that gets to the question I was going to ask you. You did show one other Republican, Congressman Charlie Dent, saying he has a problem with what the majority is doing. Is Flake the other one?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In addition to Flake, Judy, there’s also another senator, John Thune. There are actually many Republicans who are very uncomfortable about this, but on the record not so many.

    But Senator John Thune, one in Senate leadership — in fact, he’s chairman of the House Republican — or the Senate Republican Conference — he told us today that, in fact, he doesn’t think this memo should be released until senators on the Intelligence Committee there should be able to look at it and verify the intelligence themselves.

    So what you have there is not just a divide between any Republican, but a divide between leadership and the Republicans in charge of oversight of intelligence. The Senate says, we want to see this before you release it. The House says no.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can you get a sense there of what is driving this, what part of the Republican Party is determined to do this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

     This has been a groundswell from the most conservative parts of the Republican Party, and in fact the Freedom Caucus has been really been leading the rallying cry here.

    One tweet out today I think sums out that point of view. That’s from Jeff Duncan. He’s the South Carolina representative who personally asked Trump on the floor of the State of the Union to release this memo. He wrote today in this tweet that this memo “will shake the organization, the FBI down, to its core, showing Americans just how the agency was weaponized by the Obama officials, DNC, HRC,” meaning Hillary Rodham Clinton, “to larger political adversaries.”

    This is a group of conservatives who believes that the FBI has been turned against the Republican Party. It has a very similar flavor to, you, remember, when the IRS was being investigated for its targeting of Tea Party and conservative groups. This is a big conservative movement right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, take us through what happens next. If the president declares tomorrow that this memo is all right for public release, he then essentially turns it back over to Speaker Ryan. What happens then?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right.

    The president will draft a letter very likely from the White House counsel to the House and that letter will likely go directly to Chairman Nunes and probably Speaker Ryan as well. It will outline any concerns the president has.

    But if he has no concerns about this memo, if he says you can release it, at that point, Judy, Chairman Nunes can release it at any time. He has the unilateral ability to do that.

    Speaking to members here, those who want the memo released, they’re not sure how that would happen. Would it be an e-mail, would they put it on a Web site? It’s not clear.

    But there’s a question about, would it need redaction? I’m told no, that, speaking to members here, that this memo does not have any material in it that needs to be redacted and the full thing could be released very quickly, even tomorrow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, what about the Democrats? We’re hearing some stronger statements from them. What about their leadership?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right.

    We heard from Adam Schiff in the piece, but also this Democratic leader in the Senate and the Democratic leader in the House are calling for Chairman Nunes to resign. They say that what he is doing is tantamount to causing problems in the intelligence community and putting the nation and intelligence at risk.

    Speaker Ryan to that idea that Chairman Nunes should resign said that is just politics, and he’s really not paying any attention to it.

    So Chairman Nunes for now seems safe in his position, despite what Democrats would like to see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And very quickly, Lisa, we know this is a political fight, but you’re also hearing that there are larger concerns at play here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right.

    Senator Lankford, who is on the Intelligence Committee, spoke to me and said he’s worried because Russians, he thinks, are clearly making hay of this on the Internet and elsewhere. He says when American institutions fight, Russians try to take advantage of that. And that is a larger concern here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins reporting from the Republican congressional retreat at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, thank you, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You’re welcome.

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