President Trump was only vaguely aware of a controversial, classified memo about the FBI’s Russia investigation when two House conservatives brought it to his attention in a Jan. 18 phone call.
The conversation piqued Trump’s interest.
Over the next two weeks, according to interviews with eight senior administration officials and other advisers to the president, he tuned in to cable television segments about the memo. He talked to friends and advisers about it. And, before he had even read it, Trump became absolutely convinced of one thing: The memo needed to come out.
“He was listening to a number of members of Congress talk about how concerned they are and what they read. It’s not just a couple of us,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of the House conservatives who spoke with Trump on the Jan. 18 call, which had focused mostly on the impending government shutdown.
Trump’s decision, expected to culminate Friday with the memo’s release, put the president on course for the most explosive confrontation with his own FBI since he fired then-director James B. Comey last spring. It once again placed him in direct defiance of the recommendations of the country’s intelligence community, whose top official tried this week to change Trump’s mind amid concerns that the document’s disclosure would jeopardize national security.
But the president was undeterred.
“There was never any hesitation,” said one presidential adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount private talks with Trump. “The president was resolved on this. He was not going to be persuaded [otherwise]. He wanted it out.”
The president did not actually see the memo — written by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Nunes’s staff — until Wednesday afternoon, following the committee’s Monday vote to initiate its release, officials said. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly marched the document into the Oval Office so that he and Trump could briefly discuss it before the president’s meeting with regional reporters.
The president was then left alone to read the memo in its entirety.
A White House official said Kelly returned a few hours later and shared with the president his opinion: that releasing the memo would not risk national security but that the document was not as compelling as some of its advocates had promised Trump.
The memo alleges that the FBI used bad information passed on from a dossier written by a former British spy, and that this information was later used to obtain a warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, according to people familiar with the document.
Trump told aides and confidants he believed the memo would vindicate his claim early last year that the expansive Russia investigation overseen by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was a “witch hunt.” He had long expressed frustration, both publicly and privately, with his Department of Justice and, specifically, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is supervising Mueller’s work.
The president said he thought the release of the memo would help build a public argument against Rosenstein’s handling of the case, according to people familiar with the discussions. Trump suggested to aides and confidants that the memo might give him the justification to fire Rosenstein — something about which Trump has privately mused — or make other changes at the Justice Department, which he had complained was not sufficiently loyal to him.
Inside the narrow corridors and cramped offices of the West Wing, aides knew that trying to persuade their boss that keeping the memo private would likely be a fruitless endeavor. Even had the entirety of the senior staff counseled him against releasing the document, one aide reasoned, the president might still have remained unconvinced.
At one point, just before he departed for Davos, Switzerland, Trump became particularly excited watching Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) argue on CNN that the public deserved to see the memo and that some of the FBI agents involved in the probe had displayed an anti-Trump bias in text messages, a White House official said.
After the State of the Union address Tuesday night, Trump inadvertently revealed his mind-set when he was caught on tape speaking with a GOP lawmaker who had asked him to “release the memo.”
“Don’t worry, 100 percent,” Trump said, with an affirmative wave of his hand.
Still, White House aides were determined to show they were following an official process in reviewing whether to object to the House’s decision to release the memo, which they knew would face intense scrutiny from Democrats and opposition from within the FBI.
Elsewhere in the administration, serious reservations persisted.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials repeatedly spoke with Kelly to argue against the memo’s release, administration officials said. Kelly met Monday afternoon with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Rosenstein, who argued against the release, saying the memo could expose classified information and was an inaccurate depiction of the bureau’s investigative methods.
But Kelly was not swayed.
Later that night, Wray again called Kelly to argue in favor of keeping the memo private, but was unsuccessful, these officials said.
On Tuesday, five FBI officials, including at least one from counterintelligence, went to the White House to discuss their concerns with Kelly, a White House official said.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats also met with Kelly at the White House this week to express his reservations, one U.S. official said.
The discussions between Kelly and national security officials largely focused on the need to protect sources and methods of intelligence gathering, as well as concerns about setting a dangerous precedent, a White House official said.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has been highly critical of Nunes’s actions and said Thursday he worried that the memo’s release would give Trump political cover to stymie the Russia probe.
“The president is looking for a reason to fire Bob Mueller; the president is looking for a reason to fire Rod Rosenstein,” Schiff said, speaking at the University of Pennsylvania. “The White House knows it would face a firestorm if it fired Bob Mueller. What’s more effective is to fire Bob Mueller’s boss. Now, why is that more effective? Rod Rosenstein decides the scope of Bob Mueller’s investigation.”
The White House recognized the potential for political pitfalls. Aides wanted Congress to have full ownership of the memo in case it turned out to be, in the anxious prediction of one White House official, “a dud.” So the president’s advisers made a decision to create at least the perception of distance between the White House and the House Intelligence Committee, leaving the public cheerleading for the memo’s release largely to Republican lawmakers.
Vice President Pence and some members of his team agreed with the president, arguing internally for the memo’s release, said two people familiar with the conversations. Pence hinted at his view in an interview Wednesday with Politico.
“I’ve always believed in the public’s right to know, and I stand by that principle,” Pence said. “But we’ll respect whatever decision the president makes concerning that memo.”
Trump’s allies in Congress also are influential in the process.
In the Jan. 18 call, when two House conservatives — Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Meadows — first raised the subject of declassifying the Nunes memo, Trump was unfamiliar with the topic and more focused on trying to stave off a government shutdown.
But Kelly later called Meadows back to ask more about the memo and they discussed the role the president might play in its release, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
By that Monday, Jan. 22, staff had briefed the president on the arcane declassification process, which the House had never before used. If the House Intelligence Committee voted to release the memo, as it ultimately did Monday, Trump would have five days to review the document and raise any objections about its release, aides told the president.
As part of a process, administration attorneys and national security staff on Monday began consulting with intelligence and other agencies to hear their concerns before making a recommendation to the president.
Over the past two weeks, a number of senior administration officials had repeatedly urged against the memo’s release — and argued that if Trump did authorize it, he should at least order certain redactions to protect the intelligence community’s sources and methods.
On Thursday, however, the White House prepared to authorize the release of the memo in its entirety.
“The president is okay with it,” a senior administration official told reporters traveling with Trump in West Virginia. “I doubt there will be any redactions. It’s in Congress’s hands after that.”
Carol D. Leonnig and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.