WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his allies sought Sunday to contain the fallout from the release of hundreds of pages of top-secret court records documenting the FBI's investigation into a former campaign aide's ties to Russia.
Responding to lawsuits filed by USA TODAY and other media organizations, the FBI on Saturday made public more than 400 pages of material filed with a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to request a wiretap on Carter Page, a one-time Trump campaign aide who investigators believed was collaborating with Moscow.
Though vast portions of the documents were redacted, they provided new detail about how the FBI approached the early phases of the probe into Russian interference. The filings also weighed into a partisan debate over how much of the FBI's evidence was based on the work of a former British intelligence officer with ties to Hillary Clinton.
Trump and other Republicans focused on the fact that the agent's controversial "dossier" alleging links between Russia and Trump's campaign made up part of the evidence investigators used to obtain a wiretap on Page. The British agent, Christopher Steele, was hired by a research firm working for Clinton's presidential campaign.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said anyone reading the documents could "see the amount of reliance they placed on this product funded by Hillary Clinton's campaign and the DNC."
Gowdy, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," dismissed Trump's connection to Page, said he is "more like Inspector Gadget than he is Jason Bourne or James Bond."
In a series of posts on Twitter, the president blasted his Justice Department, arguing that the documents pointed to an "illegal scam" perpetrated by the FBI.
"As usual they are ridiculously heavily redacted," Trump wrote, "but confirm with little doubt that the Department of 'Justice' and FBI misled the courts."
The president’s reaction put him at odds with senior members of his own Justice Department. The documents show two requests to extend the surveillance of Page were approved by his appointees in the department, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Democrats and some Republicans noted the FBI disclosed in their filings that Steele "was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit" Trump’s campaign. Despite that fact, investigators said they believed – based on previous interactions with Steele – that his report was credible.
The applications also suggest the FBI had broader suspicions about Page and his potential ties to the Russian government.
"It was a solid application and renewals signed by four different judges,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC's "This Week."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he didn't see any indication in the court records that the Justice Department had done anything wrong.
"They went to the court. They got the judges to approve it," Rubio said on CNN's "State of the Union." "And there was a lot of reasons unrelated to the dossier for why they wanted to look at Carter Page."
Four federal judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, approved the surveillance requests, each finding the government had shown "probable cause" that Page was acting as an agent of Russia.
Page, a former campaign aide to Trump, denied Sunday that he collaborated with the Russian government to interfere with the election. Speaking for the first time since the documents were made public, Page told CNN the allegations were "a complete joke." Page has not been charged with a crime, despite the extended surveillance.
"This is so ridiculous," he said. "I’ve never been an agent of a foreign power."
Pressed by CNN's Jake Tapper about previous remarks in which he described himself as an "informal adviser" to Russia, Page dismissed his role.
"I sat in on some meetings," he said.
The FBI began monitoring Page in October 2016. That surveillance was carried out under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to monitor communications when it can persuade a judge that someone is working as an agent of a foreign power. The documents show the surveillance continued last year.
Investigators said that they had collected evidence that "the Russian Government’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election were being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” Trump’s campaign.
"Totally false," Page said on CNN. "I might have participated in a few meetings. It’s really spin."
The documents were made public after a week in which the White House was repeatedly forced to walk back comments Trump made about Russia, including during a joint appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
During a joint news conference last week, Trump appeared to accept Putin's denial of Russia's attempt to influence the election, but later clarified he thought Moscow was involved. The White House then clarified that Trump believes Russia is still attempting to target U.S. elections after the president appeared to answer a reporter's question hours earlier saying Russia is not.
USA TODAY and the James Madison Project, a nonpartisan organization that promotes government accountability, filed a lawsuit last year under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records about surveillance of Trump’s campaign. The suit came after Trump claimed the Obama administration "wire-tapped" Trump Tower before the election.