Trump declassifies documents related to Russia probe
WASHINGTON — Moving to undermine the Russia investigation that has threatened his White House tenure, President Trump moved Monday to declassify sensitive Justice Department records and personal text messages that White House allies hope will show the special counsel probe was launched from an improper foundation.
In a statement, the White House said Trump had directed the immediate declassification of about 20 pages of a June 2017 application to conduct secret surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who the FBI suspected might be a Russian spy. A heavily censored version of the counterintelligence warrant was made public in July.
Trump also ordered release of all FBI reports of interviews with Bruce G. Ohr “prepared in connection with the Russia investigation” and all FBI reports of interviews prepared in connection with the surveillance warrant for Page.
He also directed the Department of Justice to release all text messages relating to the Russia investigation of a series of individuals who the White House alleges have played a significant role in driving the Russia investigation that Trump calls a “witch hunt.”
In addition to Ohr, they include former FBI Director James Comey, who Trump fired in May 2017; Andrew McCabe, a former deputy director of the FBI who was fired in March only 26 hours before his scheduled retirement; Peter Strozok, a former senior FBI official who was fired in August; and Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer who had exchanged texts with Strozok critical of Trump.
Ohr, a Justice Department official, met with Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer paid by Democrats during the presidential campaign to research Trump’s connections to Russia. Ohr’s wife worked for Fusion GPS, the research firm that hired Steele.
Steele’s findings were compiled in an infamous dossier of allegations involving Trump and Russia, and law enforcement officials cited his research in their application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for the eavesdropping warrant on Page. Page has never been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing.
The decision to declassify the Page and Ohr documents is the latest example of Trump using his authority over the national security bureaucracy to target his critics and the Russia investigation, which he regularly blasts as a “witch hunt.”
In August, Trump revoked the security clearance of John Brennan, the former CIA director who has frequently condemned the president in TV appearances. And in February, he helped Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee, release a controversial memo alleging the Justice Department had inappropriately obtained the warrant for Page, sparking push back from the FBI.
Trump is “misusing those levers of power for very naked political reasons,” said Steve Hall, a former CIA officer who was the agency’s liaison to congressional committees in 2012. “It’s never a good thing. It compromises national security in the long run.”
A cadre of conservative House Republicans publicly called on Trump to declassify the documents at a Capitol Hill news conference on Sept. 6. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said the material would reveal the “rotten basis for the investigations that continue, solely to delegitimize the duly elected president of the United States.”
But Trump already was pushing others to release the records, berating Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Justice Department’s reluctance to break its longstanding practice of keeping secret information involving an ongoing criminal investigation.
“Open up the papers & documents without redaction?” Trump tweeted on Aug. 24. “Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!”
The Russia investigation began in mid-2016 as an FBI probe of Moscow’s efforts to disrupt the U.S. election through the theft and release of Democratic Party emails and spreading disinformation on social media. U.S. intelligence agencies say the clandestine Kremlin-backed operation later shifted its aim to supporting Trump in his bid to defeat Hillary Clinton.
After Trump fired the FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017, the Justice Department named Robert S. Muller III as special counsel in an effort to ensure the investigation’s independence from outside interference. Mueller is seeking to determine if Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian operation, or if the president obstructed justice by trying to interfere with the probe.
The collection of documents declassified by Trump all centered on the eavesdropping warrant on Page, the role of Steele’s dossier and Ohr’s communications with Steele. Although the Russia investigation predated all those episodes, conservatives have targeted them as evidence that the FBI case was flawed from the beginning.
The Justice Department applied for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Page in October 2016, after the energy consultant had left the Trump campaign and weeks before the election. The classified warrant was approved by a federal judge, and then renewed three times over the next several months, each time by a different judge.
Critics say the warrant is flawed because the application included information provided by Steele, who had been hired by an opposition research firm working on behalf of Democrats. Steele previously was considered a trustworthy FBI source and the application disclosed that his research was politically motivated, but Republicans have repeatedly argued that was inadequate.
Once their criticism was released as part of Nunes’ memo in February, Democrats wrote their own document rebutting his conclusions.
Ohr, who has investigated Russian organized crime networks operating in the United States, was a point of contact for Steele at the Justice Department.
Trump has frequently targeted Ohr, calling him a “disgrace” and threatening to revoke his security clearance. Ohr remains at the Justice Department, but late last year he was removed from his post as an associate deputy attorney general.
House Republicans have pressed the Justice Department to produce more and more documents for review.
“I do not envy the Justice Department now. They are really getting squeezed between a rock and a hard place,” said David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security and a co-founder of the Culper Partners consulting firm.
“I do not believe they will ever fully satisfy this faction of Congress that is very hungry,” he added.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chair of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said in June that he hoped the process would help exonerate Trump.
“When we get these documents, we believe that it will do away with this whole fiasco of what they call the Russian-Trump collusion, because there wasn’t any,” Meadows said on the House floor.