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Why the FBI went public with its objection to the Nunes memo release

Conservative Republicans have been urging President Trump to release the classified House Intelligence Committee memo, believing it would discredit the FBI and the Russia investigation. But the FBI has issued a statement saying the agency has "grave concerns and material omissions of fact" in the memo. John Yang learns more from Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the remarkable public fight that has erupted between the White House and the FBI over the release of a secret House Intelligence Committee memo that, as John Yang reports, is part of the Russia investigation.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, conservative Republicans have been urging President Trump to release the four-page classified document, believing it would discredit the FBI and the Russia investigation.

    Last night, as Mr. Trump left the House chamber after the State of the Union address, he seemed to assure Republican Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina that he would make it public.

  • Rep. Jeff Duncan:

    Let's release the memo.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Oh, yes. Don't worry, 100 percent. Can you imagine it?

  • John Yang:

    This morning, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders suggested on CNN that the release could take some time.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    We have said all along, from day one, that we want full transparency in this process. We haven't hidden that. But at the same time, we're still going to complete the legal and national security review that has to take place before putting something out publicly. And that's the place where we are right now.

  • John Yang:

    Later, the FBI issued a statement saying, "We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."

    To make sense of all of this, we are joined now by Devlin Barrett, who covers the Justice Department and FBI for The Washington Post.

    Devlin, thanks for joining us.

    As you reported, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray were at the White House on Monday to make their case in person to the chief of staff, John Kelly. What does it mean that they felt the need to go public this afternoon or today with that statement?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Well, frankly, in some ways, it means that they expect they have already lost this battle.

    As you saw in the president's statement the congressional floor last night, as you see in frankly the body language of many public officials in the administration and on the Hill, everyone involved in this really expects this memo will come out very soon.

    And I think as much as the statement is an attempt to say the reasons why it shouldn't come out, I think it's also frankly a statement to the public to say don't assume what you read here is the absolute truth. This may not be — and obviously the FBI is saying it isn't — this isn't an accurate accounting of what we do and how we do it.

  • John Yang:

    And because of the underlying documents or what this is based on, they can't — or they are constrained on what they can say after it's released; is that right?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Well, right.

    Part of the rub from the point of view of the intelligence agencies is that the House is going to release a set of — a classified document that has a set of assertions in it. To rebut those assertions, presumably, you will need — and I am told you would need — another set of classified information which those agencies aren't allowed or really inclined to release because it's classified.

    So for some folks in the intelligence community and the FBI, they feel like they are handcuffed, they're going to be handcuffed in terms of responding to the allegations in the first place.

  • John Yang:

    And, Devlin, what is the main concern of the FBI? What are they worried about?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    There's two main things. One, that it would involve the release of sensitive information involving an ongoing investigation.

    Two, that this could set a precedent in which every time an intelligence investigation intersects with a political matter, that a political committee may decide to just make it public for reasons that may or may not be valid.

    And so that's a dangerous precedent in their minds, and what some people would call you know politicizing the intelligence system.

  • John Yang:

    Now that the FBI has gone public with their objections to this, and we know what the President Trump's feeling about loyalty is, what do you think this does to the standing of Rod Rosenstein and Christopher Wray?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    I think Rosenstein has been on thin ice for awhile, and the ice is probably getting thinner, but that is not a unique condition in this administration and it's certainly not a unique condition in a number of parts of the Justice Department.

    So I think there is a level of risk of alienation. You know, the White House and the FBI are growing further apart by the day. In some ways, the White House and the Justice Department are growing further apart by the day.

    Does that reach a breaking point? We really don't know.

  • John Yang:

    In your reporting at the FBI and the Justice Department, do they feel under siege, under attack by the White House, by this drumbeat of criticism?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    I think they do feel under siege, and they feel like a lot of that is coming from the Hill and conservatives on the Hill who are clearly — seem clearly very antagonized and antagonistic toward the origins of the Russia investigation.

    But, clearly, also a lot of that is coming from the White House. There is a great deal of tension there, and they feel that.

  • John Yang:

    And you have also got some reporting about the — what is behind the earlier-than-expected departure of the deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe.

  • Devlin Barrett:


    We know what they have been investigating for a number of months. And they have really been trying to unpack the weeks of October 2016, the month before the election that Trump won.

    And some of that focus, we're told, a big part of that focus for months has been on, why does there seem to be some delay in the point between when a laptop is found with some new — seemingly new Hillary Clinton-related e-mails on it and when there is a full exploration of what those e-mails are and whether or not they are important?

    That gap has been very important in terms of internal fights within the FBI. And obviously because it's all become publicly known, that gap has also become important in terms of the questions that the inspector general has been asking of witnesses.

  • John Yang:

    Does the fact that Mr. Wray asked or suggested that McCabe leave earlier than expected suggest something about what is in that I.G.'s report or what the I.G. is finding?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    I think it suggests that the report will not give Andrew McCabe a clean bill of health, I think.

    But I think a lot of people are going to be subject to some type of criticism in that report ultimately. You know, Andrew McCabe is sort of a unique figure in some ways because is he still in the government, or at least was until this Monday. So that played a large role in obviously it affecting him now.

    But I think there will be criticism doled out, frankly, in a number of areas related to the Clinton investigation.

  • John Yang:

    And on the Russia investigation, we have just learned that the Justice Department is asking that Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, that his sentencing be delayed. What does that tell us about the investigation?

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Well, it tells us that we are a ways away from special counsel Bob Mueller winding this up.

    You know, you put off a sentencing like that when the witness still needs to do work for you, when there are still things that have to happen on the prosecutorial and investigative side. And you don't want to show all your cards in the form of a plea or sentencing hearing.

    So that is what it shows, that Mueller needs more time to finish his work. And, you know, I wouldn't take that as a huge surprise, but I think it's another indicator that this is likely to go on for many months more.

  • John Yang:

    Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post, unpacking a lot of information for us, thanks a lot.

  • Devlin Barrett:

    Thanks, John.

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