WASHINGTON — When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday that he wanted Americans to see a secret memo that portrays the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation as scandalous, he also said he cautioned his Republican colleagues not to use it to impugn Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel running the inquiry.
“This is a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller’s investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to take its course,” Mr. Ryan told reporters.
But as a matter of political reality, the memo — written by Republican staffers for Representative Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee chairman — has everything to do with defending President Trump from Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
As Mr. Mueller has accelerated his pace — indicting Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman and a deputy, interviewing White House aides and inducing two people connected to his campaign to plead guilty and cooperate — Mr. Trump’s allies in recent weeks have increasingly sought to shift the focus away from Russian election interference and instead portray the actions of investigators as the real scandal.
The memo is their latest salvo. Led by Mr. Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee is pivoting from examining Russia’s election meddling to instead investigating F.B.I. and Justice Department officials connected to the inquiry, putting them — with Mr. Ryan’s clear blessing — at the forefront of the broader pushback.
Republicans are pushing the narrative that a cabal of politically biased law enforcement officials set out to sabotage Mr. Trump. And they are portraying a dossier written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, which laid out unverified claims that Russia had compromised Mr. Trump and was conspiring with him, as the fountainhead of the Russia investigation. That assertion disregards unrelated evidence that Russia sought to influence the election and the pattern of contacts between Russians and Mr. Trump’s associates.
Mr. Nunes’s three-and-a-half page memo bolsters conservatives’ story line. According to people who have read it, the memo centers on a fall 2016 application for a wiretap order targeting Carter Page, a onetime Trump campaign official who had visited Moscow that June and was preparing to return there in December. The memo is said to criticize law enforcement officials for including information provided by Mr. Steele in the application without adequately explaining to the judge that Democrats financed Mr. Steele’s research.
Democrats have pushed back. Representative Adam B. Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, who has seen the underlying classified materials on which the memo is based, has said the memo contains both inaccurate assertions and material omissions to misleadingly impugn law enforcement officials. Other people familiar with it say, for example, that Mr. Steele’s information was only one thread in a tapestry of evidence from various sources that the memo ignored, exaggerating its relative importance.
Democrats on the committee produced their own classified memo that they said pointed out and explained inaccuracies in the Republican memo and filled in the missing context. But on Monday, the committee voted along party lines to make the Republican memo public and rejected a request to simultaneously make public the Democrats’ rebuttal.
Asked on Tuesday about why it would not be more appropriate to make both memos public at the same time, Mr. Ryan was evasive. He said the Democratic memo first had to go through a process in which House members outside the Intelligence Committee could read it. Pressed on why the Republican memo should not be held back until that process was done, he said a reporter had asked enough questions.
Mr. Ryan then began remarks he said he had prepared, stressing that he respected the F.B.I. and the Justice Department as important institutions for “keeping the rule of law intact.” But on Monday, Intelligence Committee Republicans signaled a widening attack on both institutions — informing Democrats that the committee has opened an investigation into them, according to Mr. Schiff — as they voted to make their memo public.
Of particular importance, the Republican memo is said to cite the role of Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general appointed by Mr. Trump last year, in signing off on an application to extend the surveillance of Mr. Page — meaning he approved the resubmission of Mr. Steele’s information to the court. Mr. Rosenstein’s role could provide critics of the inquiry ammunition to go after him.
Under Justice Department regulations, only Mr. Rosenstein can fire Mr. Mueller, and only if he finds that the special counsel has committed misconduct — something he has repeatedly said he has not seen any sign of. But if Mr. Trump were to fire Mr. Rosenstein, he could install a more accommodating replacement willing to say that he or she had spotted a reason to justify removing the special counsel and shutting down the investigation.
On Tuesday, when Mr. Ryan maintained there was no connection between the memo and Mr. Mueller’s work, the speaker also portrayed Mr. Nunes’s committee as trying to be transparent as it carried out oversight into whether the executive branch had violated civil liberties using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“There’s a very legitimate issue here as to whether or not an American’s civil liberties were violated,” he said.
But Mr. Nunes’s history in Congress undermines the idea that he is motivated by a good-faith concern that law enforcement officials might have conspired to abuse their surveillance powers and trample on civil liberties.
For one thing, Mr. Nunes was a chief architect of Congress’s move this month to extend by six years the government’s power to conduct surveillance without a warrant under certain circumstances. He and his allies turned back a push by reform-minded lawmakers to impose significant new safeguards to protect Americans’ civil liberties against the potential for abuses.
Mr. Nunes also has earned a reputation of being a staunch Trump loyalist — or “Trump’s stooge,” as his hometown newspaper, The Fresno Bee, called him last week. Last year, he dramatically announced that a whistle-blower had shown him materials revealing that Obama administration officials had improperly “unmasked” the identities of Mr. Trump’s associates in intelligence reports based on surveillance, and that he intended to inform the White House about what he had learned. But it later emerged that Mr. Trump’s aides at the White House had shown him those materials, and other Republicans who later examined them concluded no one had been improperly unmasked.
That Mr. Nunes’s actions undermined his credibility does not mean, however, that law enforcement officials made no mistakes in the highly fraught political environment of the day. The Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, is finishing an inquiry into the handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation, and he is expected to deliver some harsh findings about senior Justice Department and F.B.I. officials in the Obama administration.
As part of its examination, Mr. Horowitz’s team uncovered the texts between two F.B.I. officials who also worked on the Russia investigation in its early stages, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, expressing intense animus for Mr. Trump. Mr. Horowitz brought those messages to the attention of Mr. Mueller, who immediately removed Mr. Strzok from his team; Ms. Page had already left by then. The final inspector general report is expected to sharply criticize both.
For now, however, Mr. Nunes’s memo is coming to define a political landscape already cratered by Mr. Trump’s recurring calls to reinvestigate Mrs. Clinton; his firing of the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey; the recent revelation that Mr. Trump ordered the firing of the special counsel last summer but backed off when his White House counsel threatened to resign; and Senate Republicans’ own attempts to discredit Mr. Steele, including two leading senators’ decision recently to ask the Justice Department to investigate whether he committed a crime.
One potential clue to the strategy behind the Republican memo may be lurking in the broadcasts of the Fox News personality Sean Hannity, a close ally of Mr. Trump whose programs often function as a conduit for his messaging.
On the day House Intelligence Committee Republicans revealed the existence of their memo and voted to share it with the House, Mr. Hannity built his evening program around what he said his sources had already told him about its contents — saying Americans would soon learn “beyond any shadow of a doubt that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his band of Democratic witch hunters never should have been appointed and they need to be disbanded immediately.”
And, though it was not yet public that the memo revealed Mr. Rosenstein’s role in extending the surveillance of Mr. Page, Mr. Hannity himself raised the question: “Did Rosenstein sign off on extension of this FISA warrant?” He also emphasized that “I’m very interested about Rod Rosenstein in all of this” — and called for him to be fired.
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