POLITICS
01/19/2018 20:14 EST | Updated 01/20/2018 15:04 EST

House GOPers Say A Secret Memo Could End The Trump-Russia Probe. Their Staff Wrote It.

#ReleaseTheMemo is the latest way Republicans on Capitol Hill are trying to undermine the Mueller probe.

WASHINGTON ― House Republicans spent the end of the workweek telling everyone who would listen that the American people must be allowed to see a top-secret four-page document that could bring an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 elections.

One thing about that document: Republican staffers wrote it.

The memo Republican staffers compiled reveals information that is “absolutely shocking,” “sickening,” “jaw-dropping” and “worse than Watergate,” GOP members of Congress said Thursday and Friday. The document could send government officials to jail, one congressman said. “Is this happening in America or is this the KGB?” asked another.

Even the most plugged-in news consumer could be forgiven for thinking the classified memo is an executive branch document that exposes wrongdoing within the Justice Department and the FBI. It isn’t. 

Bill Clark via Getty Images
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) leaves a House Republican Conference meeting in December. 

The document, which alleges abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the FBI’s quiet counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign in the final months of the 2016 election, was actually compiled by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee. That committee voted along partisan lines this week to allow any member of Congress to take a peek at the document themselves. Republican members soon flocked to a secure room to read the memo written by their allies — and then ran to tell the press about it. 

Sara Carter, a Fox News contributor, wrote in a blog post on her personal website that the “bombshell” document “could lead to the removal of senior officials in the FBI and Department of Justice” and potentially spell the end of the Mueller probe. Carter’s post was widely shared on Twitter, including by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch and former White House official Sebastian Gorka. Ahead of Carter’s appearance on Fox News’ “Hannity” on Thursday night, Sean Hannity used the story to send a “message” to Mueller.

“Your witch hunt is now over,” Hannity said, addressing the Republican special counsel who was unanimously confirmed as FBI director in 2001 by the U.S. Senate, which a decade later unanimously voted to extend his term past the 10-year limit. “Time to close the doors.”

Overnight, #ReleaseTheMemo ― a hashtag reportedly given an additional boost by Russian-connected bots ― started trending on Twitter. In less than 24 hours, Donald Trump Jr. ― a likely target of the Mueller probe who communicated with Wikileaks before the election and held a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton ― sent off more than 30 tweets and retweets about the memo to his nearly 2.5 million followers.

The broader theory of the case Republicans are pushing is that the FBI inappropriately used information gleaned from a controversial “dossier” on Trump to obtain a FISA warrant to monitor a Trump campaign affiliate. They hope that’s the poison pill that could somehow justify shutting down Mueller’s entire investigation (which of course didn’t begin until after Trump was elected, took office, and fired former FBI director James Comey).

Democrats say the Republican-drafted classified memo is full of omissions and distortions intended to fuel efforts to run cover for President Trump. 

“It’s a distorted view of what the FBI has been doing,” one Hill source told HuffPost. “The majority of the committee is only sharing it so that other members of the caucus can also disparage and discredit the FBI.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the document was a “profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI” and the bureau’s handling of the investigation.

“Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most of Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI,” Schiff said. “This may help carry White House water, but it is a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals.”

Is there actually a new bombshell in the report? It’s possible. But the motives and track records of the Republican lawmakers behind the media blitz surrounding the memo suggest there may be less to it than they claim.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who chairs the committee that cooked up the document, had been the public face of the GOP push to undermine the Mueller probe, although he’d taken a backseat as of late. Last year, Nunes was involved in an embarrassing episode in which he briefed President Trump on information he received from a source he wouldn’t name. It later turned out he’d met that person on White House grounds.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) ― who previously called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign (which would allow Trump to replace him with an official who could shut down the Mueller probe) ― said the memo was “absolutely shocking.” But Meadows thinks the entire Russia probe is manufactured hysteria.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who said the memo “is so alarming the American people have to see” it, has previously called for a new special counsel to investigate Mueller’s special counsel team.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who said he was shaking his head when he read the memo and that the “American people deserve the truth,” benefited politically from documents the Russians hacked, and pushed a measure that would kill the Mueller probe.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) ― who has called for reining in the Mueller probe by gutting its financing, and recently went pheasant hunting with Donald Trump Jr. ― said he was sickened by the memo and that it was “worse than Watergate.” He thinks the FBI was part of the #NeverTrump movement and wanted Clinton elected.

If the memo does eventually go public, it won’t end well for Republicans, Susan Hennessey, the executive editor of the legal commentary site Lawfare, argued Friday. “After causing completely unnecessary chaos today, this memo will be released in some redacted [form] in a few weeks and prove to be an utter embarrassment to Nunes personally, the [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] majority, and frankly to US House of Representatives,” Hennessey predicted.

Some conservatives have urged caution, worrying that Republicans are overhyping a secret document. Republicans “should not oversell” the report, conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt wrote. Over at the conservative blog Hot Air, Ed Morrissey wondered if it was a “set-up for a let-down.” He argued the memo should be released, but warned conservatives to “not go all-in on it until we have a chance to see it for ourselves. In the meantime, remember that most things that seem too good to be true usually are.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a 35-year-old Republican freshman from Florida who recently flew on Air Force One with Trump and is friends with Roger Stone, is one of the believers. Gaetz has called for Mueller to be fired and said on “Hannity” on Thursday that officials might wind up in jail over what he saw in the memo.

HuffPost ran into Gaetz on Capitol Hill on Thursday evening, just a few hours after the congressman appeared on the Fox Business channel above the chyron “I JUST READ A 4-PAGE MEMO THAT THREATENS DEMOCRACY TO ITS CORE.”

“I believe that the contents of that memo need to be made available to the public immediately, and that that is a critical concern in kind of all of the Mueller, Russia, Trump discourse,” Gaetz told HuffPost of the memo, which he said “kind of aggregates” intelligence data.

In the interview with HuffPost, Gaetz ran into a common problem for Republicans who suggest the FBI was too rough on Trump but went too easy on Clinton during the 2016 campaign: the indisputable fact that the FBI’s actions then harmed Clinton. Comey’s conduct during the Clinton investigation was even the underlying justification the Trump administration provided last spring to explain Trump firing Comey. If people in the FBI and the so-called “deep state” were trying to get Clinton elected president, then frankly, they did a terrible job of it.

Surely Gaetz could concede the FBI’s actions ahead of the 2016 election were much more damaging to the Clinton campaign than they were to Trump? “I wouldn’t agree with that characterization,” he replied.

Under Gaetz’s theory, the FBI was hellbent on leaking information to the press to stop Trump from being elected. Gaetz told HuffPost that texts between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page showed they were “talking about a plan to strategically leak information to embarrass Trump.” As HuffPost recently explained, a deeply flawed story by John Solomon of The Hill has left a lot of people with the inaccurate impression that the text messages show the FBI officials were leaking information to hurt Trump. That’s what Gaetz believes.

“That was explicit in their communications to each other,“ Gaetz claimed.

“How so?” HuffPost asked. Here’s how the conversation went from there:

Gaetz: Well, when they talked about the, um, I think it was the Wall Street Journal article, and they were talking about, oh, was it behind a paywall and did it contain the information that ―

HuffPost: What Wall Street Journal story was that, that was negative against Trump?

Gaetz: Uh, again it’s referenced in their communications back and forth, this was I think in October.

HuffPost: Mhmm. But do you know what story it was?

Gaetz: Yeah, it was all about the contents of the dossier.

HuffPost: The Wall Street Journal story on the 24th was about the contents of the dossier? The dossier wasn’t released until ―

Gaetz: No, it might not have been the one of the 24th. It was the communication that was referenced in the Page-Strzok text messages.

HuffPost: No, I know the one you’re talking about, you said the Wall Street Journal story. I just think the Wall Street Journal story that they were talking about, if you look at it in context, they were talking about a story that was actually negative about the FBI and to Hillary Clinton. It was the story about the then-deputy attorney general McCabe [Ed. note: McCabe is the FBI’s deputy director] who was basically being accused of ― I think you’ll probably recall this [from] the time ...

Gaetz: Mhmm.

HuffPost: ... was basically being accused, because his wife had received money, so that was what the story was about.

Gaetz: No, yeah, but I think there was other stuff that was included within that ―

HuffPost: Like what?

Gaetz: Well I don’t have it in front of me.

Gaetz’s theory ― that the FBI provided information for an Oct. 24, 2016, Wall Street Journal story on the Trump dossier ― doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, chiefly because no such story exists. The first story to reference the “dossier” was published by Mother Jones on Oct. 31, 2016, a full week after Strzok-Page exchanged texts about a Wall Street Journal article. The Mother Jones story only came out after Comey sent a letter about the Clinton investigation on Oct. 28 that set off a media frenzy Clinton has partially blamed for her loss. 

But the secret GOP memo gave Gaetz a convenient pivot point: the suggestion that there’s something, a bombshell, that he can’t reveal publicly. And it totally supports the theory he’s been pushing this whole time.

“I can say that if this memo become available to the public, many of the concerns that have been raised by members of the Judiciary Committee will be highlighted,” Gaetz said. 

Later on Friday, all nine Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee issued a statement calling the memo a “misleading set of talking points attacking the FBI.” Since the documents that the GOP-prepared memo cites are highly classified, the Democrats said, they will not be made public and it will become “impossible for the few Members who have seen the documents to explain the flaws and misstatements contained within the talking points” without disclosing sources and methods. 

“This is by design,” they said. “Not surprisingly, the GOP campaign to attack the FBI now has been joined by the same forces that made common cause during the Trump campaign — Wikileaks, Julian Assange and a multitude of online Russian bots are now involved in promoting this effort. It should be seen for what it so plainly is: yet another desperate and flailing attempt to undermine Special Counsel Mueller and the FBI, regardless of the profound damage it does to our democratic institutions and national security agencies.”

Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at ryan.reilly@huffpost.com or on Signal at 202-527-9261.