Trump preps Russia probe punch with declassification

Chad Day and Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press

Washington – President Donald Trump has opened a new front in his efforts to discredit the origins of the Justice Department’s Russia probe, with the White House saying he will declassify a trove of documents and publicly release text messages of former FBI officials after calls from a small group of his Republican allies in Congress to do so.

The declassification announcement came as part of Trump’s continued efforts to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe in the wake of the guilty plea of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and amid the ongoing grand jury investigation into a longtime associate, Roger Stone. The president also made the decision as he dealt with a separate firestorm surrounding his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, and a sexual assault allegation.

It was unclear how soon the documents would be released. The White House on Monday evening announced that Trump would declassify a portion of a secret surveillance warrant application and also direct the Justice Department to release text messages and documents involving several top Justice Department and FBI officials whom he has attacked over the last year, including former FBI Director James Comey.

“Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.

In comments later at the White House, the president said he wants “total transparency,” returning to his usual refrain that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.”

“The things that have been found over the last couple of weeks about text messages back and forth are a disgrace to our nation,” he said, adding: “I think it’s a good thing because we should open it up for people to see.”

The move comes after a small group of Republicans in Congress, all staunch allies of Trump, held a news conference last week asking him to declassify the documents. Democrats criticized the effort, saying the GOP lawmakers were trying to discredit the Justice Department in an effort to protect Trump from Mueller’s investigation.

Trump made a similar move in February when the White House, over the objections of the FBI and intelligence community, cleared the way for the Republican-led House intelligence committee to release a partisan memo about the surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Democrats weeks later released their own memo.

The disclosures were unprecedented given that surveillance warrants obtained from the secret court are highly classified and are not meant to be publicly disclosed, including to defendants preparing for or awaiting trial.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Trump’s latest decision in a written statement Monday evening, saying the president had directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department to declassify the documents. Those departments have since said they have begun a declassification review of the materials.

According to the White House, Trump declassified 21 pages of the 101-page June 2017 application to renew a warrant obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to monitor Page’s communications in 2016.

Those pages only make up a small part of the 412 pages of FISA applications and court orders related to Page released by the FBI earlier this year in heavily redacted format.

The June 2017 application was the last of four filed by the Justice Department in support of FISA court orders allowing the monitoring of Page. His communications were monitored for nearly a year starting in October 2016.

According to the redacted version, three of the declassified pages involve information included in a section titled “The Russian Government’s Coordinated Efforts to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” That section includes reference to potential coordination between people associated with Trump’s campaign and the Russian election interference effort.

The other 18 pages appear to relate to information the government submitted that came from former British spy Christopher Steele before the presidential election. Steele was a longtime FBI informant whose Democratic-funded research into Trump ties to Russia was compiled into a dossier that has become a partisan lightning rod since its publication in January 2017.

Besides the FISA applications pages, the president is declassifying all FBI reports documenting interviews in connection with the Page surveillance warrant and those documenting interviews with senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who was in contact with Steele.

According to Sanders’ statement, Trump also directed the Justice Department to publicly release in full the text messages of Comey, Ohr, former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and former FBI special agent Peter Strzok that are related to the Russia investigation.

The declassification decision and order for public release of the documents was quickly praised by Trump allies in Congress and attacked by Democrats.

“Transparency wins. This is absolutely the right call from @POTUS,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, on Twitter.

Meadows, who had pushed for the documents’ release, said it will allow the American people to decide “what happened at the highest levels of their FBI and Justice Department.”

And the No. 3 Republican in the House, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, tweeted that Trump made the right call.

“Americans deserve the truth about these egregious actions by government officials,” Scalise said.

But Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called Trump’s decision a “clear abuse of power” intended to advance a “false narrative” to help in his defense from Mueller’s probe.

Schiff said the FBI and the Justice Department had said releasing the documents would cross a “red line” because doing so would compromise sources and methods.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary committees, said in a statement that Trump’s actions were a “direct and frantic response” to Manafort’s recent guilty plea and cooperation agreement with Mueller.

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Eric Tucker and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.