WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday backed the release of a controversial GOP-authored memo suggesting misconduct at the highest levels of the FBI and the Justice Department. But he argued he’s actually protecting the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation ― the very things Republicans have already tried to use the memo to undermine.
Ryan told reporters Tuesday he supports the release of the GOP-authored House Intelligence Committee memo, despite the objections of the Justice Department, because there are “legitimate questions” about whether the civil liberties of a particular U.S. citizen were violated. Ryan said he sees the issues raised in the memo as “a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller’s investigation.”
The only problem: Republicans have been citing this same memo in an effort to erode confidence in the FBI and Mueller’s probe, which has already resulted in criminal charges or guilty pleas from four Trump aides.
GOP members have engaged in a lengthy campaign to suggest there was a broad conspiracy within the nation’s premier law enforcement agency to undermine Donald Trump. Some of the president’s favorite Fox News programs ― “Fox & Friends,” “Justice with Judge Jeanine” and “Hannity” ― have amplified those claims in an effort to undermine Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion with Russia during the 2016 election and obstruction of justice from Trump and his team.
Democrats have tried to combat this campaign by preparing their own memo which, they say, puts some of the claims of the GOP document into broader context. But Republicans have blocked Democratic attempts to release that memo side-by-side with the GOP one.
On Monday, Sean Hannity said the supposed conspiracy against Trump “makes Watergate look like stealing a Snickers bar.” Sara Carter, a Fox News contributor whose blog posts about the GOP memo on her personal website have been widely shared in conservative circles, agreed with his assessment. “Absolutely!” she said. And Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told HuffPost on Monday night that the GOP memo reveals conduct that was “worse than Watergate.”
When HuffPost asked King why he wouldn’t want to release the Democratic memo as well in that case, King ― with no apparent irony ― said the Democratic document is an attempt to “blur and obfuscate the issue.”
Ryan urged GOP members during a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning not to overstate the conclusions of the memo and not to tie Mueller’s investigation with the memo, which reportedly suggests that the FBI and Justice Department may have misused their authority to secure a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to surveil Trump campaign official Carter Page.
“Because of all the loose political rhetoric floating around here, we need to make sure we explain that there is a separation between these things,” Ryan told reporters.
The speaker said he had four points about the memo ― points he also made to members earlier in the morning. Ryan said he wants the document released (1) because of the questions about violating an American’s civil liberties, (2) because this was separate from the Mueller investigation, (3) because there may have been “malfeasance” at the FBI, and (4) because it’s important for the public to be able to trust the Department of Justice and the FBI.
But the public won’t be able to see the underlying documents that Republicans insist show FISA abuse. Rather, they’ll have to rely on the assertions of Republican staffers.
Even Trump administration officials say House Republicans may not be the most reliable narrators. Last week, a Trump administration official at the Justice Department wrote in a letter that the department was “unaware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process.” The letter called the potential release of the memo an “unprecedented” and “extraordinarily reckless” action that risks “harm to national security and to ongoing investigations.”
DOJ has been mum on the issue now that Republicans have voted to release the memo. A department spokesperson told HuffPost they had no statement.
FBI supporters told HuffPost they’re concerned about the detrimental effects of the campaign against the bureau. And indeed, there’s evidence it has already swung public opinion.
A new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows that the percentage of Republicans saying they trust the bureau has dropped by 22 points since 2015, while trust among independents has dropped about 15 points. Despite Hillary Clinton’s assertion that former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the investigation into her email server cost her the election, Democratic trust in the bureau is roughly the same in 2018 as it was in 2015. Just 10 percent of Republicans now have a great deal of trust in the FBI, compared to 30 percent of Democrats.
When asked Tuesday why he supports releasing the Republican document but not the Democratic memo, Ryan said Republicans are following the declassification process.
“I would remind you that the Democrats tried blocking the rest of the members of Congress from even having access to the memo that the majority wrote,” Ryan said.
Asked again why Congress wouldn’t release both documents at the same time, Ryan said it was “ironic” that the majority voted to actually give access to this memo alleging FISA abuse, while the minority voted to deny that access. “So I think the irony is a little rich here these days,” the speaker said.
Earlier this month, 191 House Republicans voted to reauthorized FISA.