By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday blocked the release of a classified memo written by congressional Democrats to rebut a Republican document that he allowed to be made public last week that claimed FBI and Justice Department bias against him in the federal probe of Russia and the 2016 U.S. election.
The White House said the Justice Department had identified portions of the memo that “would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests” of the country.
A week earlier, Trump had overruled objections from the Federal Bureau of Investigation about releasing the Republican memo that took aim at senior law enforcement officials.
The House of Representatives Intelligence Committee voted unanimously on Monday to release the 10-page document drafted by the panel’s Democrats, contingent on the Republican president agreeing to reclassify it.
Trump on Feb. 2 allowed the release of the earlier memo written by the committee’s Republicans, escalating a campaign criticizing current and former senior law enforcement officials. Democrats said the Republican memo mischaracterised highly sensitive classified information and was intended to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.
Mueller is also investigating whether Trump has committed obstruction of justice in trying to impede the Russia probe.
Trump met on Friday afternoon with officials from the Justice Department, White House Counsel’s Office and the FBI director, Christopher Wray, to get their input on the Democratic memo, the White House said.
“Although the President is inclined to declassify the Feb. 5 Memorandum, because the memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time,” White House Counsel Don McGahn said in a letter to Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House panel.
The White House also released a letter sent to McGahn by Wray and to Rod Rosenstein, the No. 2 Justice Department official, expressing concerns about the memo’s release “in light of longstanding principles regarding the protection of intelligence sources and methods, ongoing investigations, and other similar sensitive information.”
The Republican memo portrayed the Russia investigation as a product of political bias at the FBI and Justice Department against Trump. The president said the document “totally vindicates” him in the Russia investigation, a claim disputed by Democrats and some Republicans.
Democrats last week warned Trump against using the Republican memo as a pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who hired Mueller and oversees the investigation, or to remove Mueller himself. The Republican memo singled out Rosenstein and several other officials by name, including former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, who Trump fired in May 2017, as the agency investigated the Russia matter.
Mueller took over the investigation from the FBI.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign using hacking and propaganda, an effort that eventually included attempting to tilt the race in Trump’s favour. Russia denies interfering in the election. Trump denies collusion with Moscow.
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Eric Walsh; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Paul Simao and Daniel Wallis)