Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday called for the removal of Rep. Devin Nunes over a controversial classified memo accusing the FBI and Justice Department of surveillance abuses.
Members of the panel have been publicly arguing over whether the document, drafted by the House intelligence committee chairman was altered between being approved by GOP panel members and when it was sent to the White House for further review.
“Chairman Nunes’ deliberately dishonest actions make him unfit to serve as Chairman, and he must be immediately removed from this position,” Rep. Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “As Speaker, put an end to this charade and hold Chairman Nunes and all Congressional Republicans accountable to the oath they have taken to support and defend the Constitution, and protect the American people.”
Sen. Schumer added in his own letter to Mr. Ryan: “Remove Chairman Nunes from the [committee]; withdraw support for the release of the memo; and insist on supporting swift passage of legislation protecting Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation from political interference.”
Mr. Ryan said the memo was not an “indictment” on either the FBI or the Department of Justice, but was within Congress’ right to act as an oversight concerning possible abuses in the justice system.
“If American civil liberties were abused then that needs to come to light so that that doesn’t happen again. What this is not is an indictment on our institutions of our justice system,” Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Thursday to reporters at the Republican conference in West Virginia.
“This memo is not an indictment on the FBI on the DOJ, it does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general,” he added, referring to special counsel Robert Mueller.
House Republicans who have reviewed Mr. Nunes’ memo say it focuses specifically on these possibly abuses.
“The majority memo is specifically about FISA abuse and some misconduct that took place at the highest levels of the DOJ and FBI,” Rep. Lee Zeldin, New York Republican, said on MSNBC.
Republicans say the memo will reflect badly on those in the upper levels of the FBI, but similar to other colleagues, declined to call for resignations until after it’s released.
“It will be embarrassing to several people near the top of the FBI, but that’s all I can say at this point,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said on Fox News. Mr. Goodlatte also chairs the House Judiciary Committee and announced his plans to retire after his current term.
One Republican said that FBI Director Christopher Wray would likely prefer the Republican memo to be released based on the documents he read.
“I think if Christopher Wray was asked if one of them had to be released it would be the Republican memo,” Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican, said on Fox News.
Mr. Ratcliffe explained that he has viewed both the Republican and Democratic memo and the source documents, but did not explain specifically why Mr. Wray would prefer the Republican document.
On Thursday morning, lawmakers continued clashing over an accusation made late Wednesday by the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, that Mr. Nunes changed the document enough that it should be immediately withdrawn.
Mr. Nunes spokesman, Jack Langer, countered that the changes were minor and some even requested by the Democrats.
“In its increasingly strange attempt to thwart publication of the memo, the Committee Minority is now complaining about minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and by the Minority themselves,” Mr. Langer said.
The House intelligence committee voted to publicly release the memo along party lines on Monday and it’s now up to the White House to decide whether or not to go ahead with that decision.
On Thursday, the White House confirmed President Trump has read the document but officials were unwilling to comment on the timing of its public release.
“It’ll be reviewed and released at the appropriate time,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said on Fox News. “The president wants transparency, he wants the public to be able to see things. He’s made his inclination pretty clear.”
Mr. Shah said the White House is “engaged in a national security and legal review” of the memo.
The controversial memo
Mr. Nunes’ document has created such controversy across Congress and the FBI that on Wednesday the bureau made a rare public statement questioning its accuracy.
The memo alleges Obama-era law enforcement officials abused the government surveillance program known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the 2016 presidential election campaign — to spy on members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team.
Democrats argue that Republicans are now using Mr. Nunes’ memo to discredit the justice system as part of a larger effort to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian meddling investigation.
Republicans counter that Mr. Trump was politically smeared by the Russia scandal by Obama-era officials on their way out of Washington after the 2016 election.
On Thursday, CNN reported that Mr. Trump continues to tell associates he believes the memo could help discredit the Russia investigation.
Panel member Brad Wenstrup reiterated that only minor changes had been made.
“The only thing I was aware of were making some grammatical changes and making sure that we did not describe someone’s job if it was a matter of national security, but the content wasn’t changed,” the Ohio Republican told CNN.
Democratic committee member, Rep. Jim Himes countered that Mr. Nunes made “substantive changes” before shipping the document to the White House.
“If you read Adam Schiff’s letter, and Adam Schiff, whatever you think of him as a Democrat in what has unfortunately become a partisan fight, is an attorney. He’s very careful. He’s not bombastic. He doesn’t bend the truth, and the words were that there were material and substantive changes,” Mr. Himes told CNN on Thursday.
Rep. Peter King, former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, also weighed in on Thursday, saying Mr. Nunes’ memo includes “every relevant fact” to the case and believes the memo should come out.
“The first time the White House saw it is, we had our people officially deliver it to [the] White House counsel, and the national security lawyers, on Monday night at the White House,” Mr. King, New York Republican, said on CNN.
Mr. King said that he agrees some Republicans “overstate” the case, but he said that is why the memo needs to be released. Once the information is out there the American public can make up their own minds about the situation.
Lewis Schiliro, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and former director of the agency’s New York office, said he couldn’t recall a similar battle between the bureau and a sitting president. He is worried the fight will erode public trust in the FBI.
“This is very damaging to the FBI,” he said. “The said part is that you only have two or three people at the top of the bureau involved in this, and that’s not fair to the 1,400 agents out there sacrificing and doing the things that they need to do.”
Mr. Wray was correct to issue a statement this week saying the bureau had “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the Nunes Memo, Mr. Schiliro said.
“All this memo is going to do is further impugn the bureau’s reputation,” he said. “[Mr. Wray] is sticking up for the bureau because he believes the memo is incomplete and it probably is because you are not putting out the entire application. I’m proud that he’s sticking up for the FBI.”
David Stebenne, a history professor at Ohio State University, said the FBI didn’t engage in public battles with politicians because of the power amassed by J. Edgar Hoover, who led the bureau from 1924 to 1972. That influence made him nearly untouchable, he said.
Mr. Stebenne said the only major battle between the FBI and a presidential administration was Mr. Hoover’s fight with President Kennedy over the civil rights movement. Mr. Hoover had opposed the movement, Mr. Stebenne said, but that fight with the Kennedy administration was behind the scenes and never became public.
“Fights between a president and the FBI have occurred before, but the public aspect is very new,” he said.
• Dave Boyer and Jeff Mordock contributed to this story.