ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're seeing an avalanche of headlines about the Russia investigation. We just heard about the White House decisions on new sanctions for Moscow. Also the FBI is fighting the release of a classified memo that Republicans say will make the case that there is anti-Trump bias within the Justice Department. And the deputy director of the FBI has resigned under pressure from Republicans. To take a step back from these daily headlines and help us understand the bigger picture here, NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing came into the studio.
PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Right now, the story is about managing the story. Republicans are trying to use their control of the levers of power, their control of the White House, their control of Republican majorities in Congress, to dictate the terms of what this conversation is about. That's why the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, prepared this memorandum that he says documents abuses of power by the FBI and Justice Department in getting the whole Russia investigation started. The committee voted along party lines on Monday to release that memo. And it's with the White House, and the president will probably release it later this week or early next week. And when it comes out, it could make a case that these supposedly biased Democratic partisans inside the FBI and the Justice Department used oppo research from the infamous Steele dossier to get started with this Russia investigation against Trump.
SHAPIRO: But there's also a Democratic memo that rebuts that argument apparently. We haven't seen the memo because right now both of them are classified. And the Democrats' memo is not being released.
EWING: That's right, yeah. The top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, says this Republican memo was so irresponsible it cherry-picked, in his phrase, the intelligence so unfairly that he needed to respond with one of his own. His memo is classified, too. However, as I said, because Republicans control the majority in this committee, they could vote on Monday to release theirs but not to release the Democrats'. They have said since then that the Democrats' memo will eventually come out at some point. But during that period, before it does, they will have one more bit of advantage in terms of the cable TV coverage, the headlines in the newspapers and so forth.
SHAPIRO: I know the Justice Department and the FBI have urged lawmakers not to release this memo. They've said it will compromise national security. It could reveal sources and methods. If we take that at face value and believe they actually do think it will compromise national security, could there also be an element here of the Justice Department pushing back against, as they might see it, being weaponized in this political battle over the Russia investigation?
EWING: I think that's definitely behind some of the objections the Justice Department has made here. They said they are not aware of any wrongdoing in terms of asking for the authorizations. They wanted to do this investigation or potentially surveil Americans as a part of this foreign intelligence surveillance process. And also they said it would be, in their phrase, extraordinarily reckless for this document to come out. Since it's a partisan document, it's a Republican view of the way the story went down. There are things that it puts out of order. There are things that it changes, again, according to the Justice Department, which is why they objected to it being out there.
SHAPIRO: You know, the FBI has been involved in a lot of politically sensitive investigations. There was the Valerie Plame affair under George W. Bush. You could look at President Nixon's use of the FBI to go after his political enemies. How common is it for lawmakers and others to target the FBI and sort of weaponize them in a political debate like the one we're seeing right now?
EWING: Well, you make a great point. The FBI has been political for its entire history. It's been accused of being the tool of power. But the difference with this story seems to be that in those other cases, no one was using their access to secret information to expose what it called the wrongdoing of the FBI in real time. In this case, we have the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, who has privileged secret access to things that are taking place at levels that you and I can't see, and he's pulling some of those details out of that world and putting them into this document that he says proves his case that in this case the FBI was out to get President Trump and it was pursuing a biased investigation.
SHAPIRO: And all of these threads that we're talking about are sort of a meta level on top of the underlying question of how did Russia try to influence American politics, the 2016 election, and did President Trump try to obstruct the investigation into Russian involvement? So how does that top layer that we've been talking about for the last few minutes affect this bottom layer, the underlying question?
EWING: Well, for one thing, we're not talking about those questions now, and neither are a lot of other people because there's a new twist. There's a new turn. You have to explain how the law works, who these FBI officials are, et cetera. And so just in terms of the bandwidth that we expend on discussing where the story is, that's where we focus as opposed to, as you said, collusion or obstruction. But that aspect of the story is still taking place behind the scenes. The special counsel, Robert Mueller, is still working with his team inside the Justice Department. He's had two indictments. He's had two guilty pleas, and no one knows where he's going to go next, how many more people might become involved or what more witnesses he'd want to talk to. The one thing we know that is taking place is negotiations between his team in the White House over President Trump potentially talking with Mueller and his team. But we also don't know when that's going to happen, except to say that that aspect of the story is still playing out. And right now, it has no ends in sight.
SHAPIRO: NPR national security editor Phil Ewing, thanks for walking us through this.
EWING: Thank you.
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