WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Anyone looking for news about the 2018 Republican agenda being shaped during a joint House and Senate GOP retreat here might struggle to find it. All reporters wanted to talk about Thursday was “the memo.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a break from their Thursday agenda planning sessions on topics such as infrastructure, workforce development and government and budget process changes to answer questions from reporters. But none of the questions asked during their news conference were about those topics.
Of the eight questions, six were about the House Intelligence Committee’s classified memo on the FBI’s intelligence-gathering activities in its investigation into potential ties between President Donald Trump and Russia. The other two were about government funding and immigration, must-pass items with respective deadlines of Feb. 8 and March 5.
No questions were asked about the agenda. “They said last question,” Ryan said when reporters shouted an appeal for him to take a non-memo question as he attempted to leave. His spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, had called “last question” barely 11 minutes into the news conference that lasted just under 13 minutes.
The Intelligence Committee voted Monday to release the classified memo to the public, and it’s been the topic dominating cable news ever since.
Stories speculating on the memo’s content and accuracy, the political motivations behind it and the impact its release could have on the Department of Justice and the FBI and nonpartisan intelligence investigations have occupied the news cycle.
The Ryan and McConnell presser is just one example of the media’s “memo mania” in covering the retreat. Every single press conference that lawmakers held to read out the sessions on defense, infrastructure, workforce development and the budget process was intercepted by off-topic questions on the memo.
Those media availabilities were led mostly by lawmakers who do not serve on the Intelligence Committee, including senators who like McConnell had not seen the memo.
Watch — Why Does Congress Retreat?
One of the more stunning displays was the peppering of memo questions to House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, who had come to talk about defense issues. He is the leader of the House defense hawks, many of whom are threatening to vote against the continuing resolution. Without their support, a government shutdown in a week is a real possibility.
After an already initiated five-day review period, President Donald Trump is expected to approve the memo’s release Friday, a White House official said Thursday.
Because the memo is a House product most of the questions were directed at Ryan. One of the six questions was to McConnell, who was asked if he had seen it and believed it should be released.
“No I haven’t, and I don’t have any suggestions to make to the speaker,” the Kentucky Republican said. “I think he’s handling this just right.”
At the press conference, the first question was on the “danger” of releasing the memo. Ryan dismissed that assertion, saying the memo was about congressional oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law authorizing intelligence agencies to spy on foreign adversaries that includes restrictions on how any unintentional American data swept up in that surveillance can be used.
“If American civil liberties were abused, then that needs to come to light so that that doesn’t happen again,” Ryan said.
“This memo is not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of the Justice,” he said, referring to assertions that have been made in the press. “It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general.”
Next, Ryan was asked to respond to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer calling on him to remove California Rep. Devin Nunes as chairman of the Intelligence panel over his handling of “memo-gate.” (The Intelligence Committee chairmanship is a speaker-appointed post.)
“I think they’re just playing politics,” Ryan said, accusing Democrats of trying to “sidetrack” Republicans from building on the success of their tax overhaul.
A status update on plans for a stopgap funding measure needed to keep the government open past Feb. 8 briefly interrupted talk of the memo. A continuing resolution is in the works and leaders are “still negotiating on the contents and the duration of that,” Ryan said.
Next, McConnell got a question about what immigration bill the Senate would take up when it turns to that debate if a second government shutdown is averted.
If senators fail to produce a consensus product he’ll facilitate an open debate that won’t tilt in either parties’ favor, McConnell said, but he would not specify a bill.
Back to the memo, reporters wanted to know what Ryan thought about alleged changes that were made to the memo after the committee voted to release it.
Ryan said it didn’t happen that way.
“My understanding is it was before it was voted on,” he said.
The process of releasing classified material includes a “scrub” to ensure national security standards are met.
“In consultation with the FBI, they made a chance to register those concerns, and then [the committee] voted on releasing the memo to the White House,” Ryan said.
The next memo question was about whether Ryan was concerned the FBI director had urged against releasing the memo.
The speaker said he was not, reiterating it was about congressional oversight of FISA and to “bring accountability and transparency to the process.” He noted that a vast majority of DOJ and FBI employees are doing a good job and said they are “very important institutions for the rule of law,” suggesting the memo was not a larger attack on them.
The last question to Ryan concerned assertions that the memo was meant to affect the special counsel’s investigation.
“People should not be drawing lines,” he said. “People should not be implicating independent issues.”