WASHINGTON — The latest attempt by some Republicans in Congress to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation has been embraced by Russian bots and trolls on social media.
At issue is a classified memo written by House GOP staffers that purports to describe abuses in FBI surveillance practices, but has been denounced by Democratic lawmakers as deeply misleading.
House Republicans have described the revelations in the memo as "worse than Watergate," and are demanding its release. The story is getting major coverage by right-leaning news organizations, including Fox News, Breitbart, the Washington Examiner and the Daily Caller.
The Republican message is being amplified by Russian propagandists, according to independent experts.
"#Releasethememo" is now the top trending hashtag among Russian bots and trolls on Twitter and other platforms, according to the German Marshall Fund's "Hamilton 68" website, which tracks Russian influence campaigns.
The president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., also employed the hashtag in a tweet Friday morning.
"Americans deserve to know the contents of the memo," he wrote. "Democrats & deep state govt officials are doing everything they can to protect those within the government who used their positions of influence to target those they disagree with politically. RELEASE THE MEMO! #ReleaseTheMemo"
Rep. Steve King, a conservative Republican from Iowa, tweeted Thursday night: "I have read the memo. The sickening reality has set in. I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen. I have long said it is worse than Watergate. It was." #neverTrump & #alwaysHillary. #releasethememo"
Democrats say the memo is the latest attempt by President Trump's allies in Congress to discredit the Russian investigation and denigrate the law enforcement professionals who are running it. They say it's a disturbing example of how the Republicans are working hand-in-glove with Russian bots and trolls to push what the Democrats see as harmful distortions.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, last night described the memo as "a profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI and its handling of the investigation. Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most of Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI. This may help carry White House water, but it is a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals."
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The House Intelligence Committee passed a motion along party lines Thursday to make the classified memo available to all House members.
Fox News contributor Sara Carter asserted Thursday that the memo shows "extensive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse."
Some Republicans have suggested that the memo shows that parts of the Christopher Steele dossier — an opposition research project initially funded by Democrats -- were cited in applications by the FBI for secret FISA warrants.
Those warrants may have granted the FBI the authority to tap the phones and intercept the emails of Trump campaign aides such as Carter Page or Paul Manafort.
However, experts tell NBC News that including in a warrant application information Steele passed on to the FBI along would be neither unusual nor improper. Steele is a former British intelligence operative who gathered information from Russian sources. The FBI had worked with him previously and viewed him as credible.
By the time the FBI received the details of what Steele had found in October 2016, the bureau had already received information about possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia from many other sources, including foreign governments and the CIA.
FBI agents use the "probable cause" standard to cite information in warrant affidavits, meaning they believe the information likely to be true.
One former senior government official who prepared thousands of FISA warrants said the applicants "tend to load it up with a bunch of stuff," to give the FISA court judges the full context.
Anyone who suggests the FISA warrants in the Trump Russia case are scandalous, the former official said, is criticizing the FBI agents who prepared them, the Justice Department prosecutors who took them to court, and the FISA court judges who approved them.
Republicans critical of the Russia investigation and the FBI have previously raised questions about the process of "unmasking" the names of Americans in intelligence reports," and have pushed the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to look at how the FBI handled various Hillary Clinton matters.
Rep Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the House Russia investigation, said last night that it would be "real dangerous," to release the memo because it was classified.
But on Friday, he said he had changed his mind, and he supports a possible release.