President Trump ordered the FBI to declassify a select number of documents from the earliest days of the Russia investigation, including portions of a surveillance warrant application and text messages about the probe between top law enforcement officials, the White House announced Monday night.
One of those officials, according to the Associated Press, is former FBI Director James Comey, whom the president fired in May 2017, admittedly in response to the FBI’s ongoing investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Comey’s dismissal later prompted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Special Counsel Robert Mueller to carry out the investigation, which was expanded to investigate claims of obstruction of justice committed by the president.
“Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
The decision to declassify the documents was made “at the request of” top congressional Republicans, including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who have long argued the investigation is baseless and fueled largely by anti-Trump sentiment. It also comes days after former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller, in exchange for a lighter sentence related to 10 counts from an earlier trial in Virginia last month.
In a statement Monday night, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the decision was specifically made “for reasons of transparency” and that Comey’s text messages, as well as text messages to and from former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
The move to declassify is troubling for several reasons.
National security issues
According to Sanders, several of the declassified materials will be released un-redacted. Portions of a sensitive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application will also be made public.
The FISA pages in question — 21 in all — come from a lengthy FISA renewal application submitted in June 2017 to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Page was known to the FBI as far back as 2014, when he was initially placed under surveillance due to his extensive ties to Russian officials. Trump also ordered the FBI to release all of its reports pertaining to interviews “prepared in connection” with the application.
The decision has thrown the intelligence and law enforcement community into chaos, with many arguing such a move could prove extremely dangerous, given the numerous levels of security such documents typically must pass through before being made public.
“The release of FISAs like this is off the charts. It is especially unprecedented considering that the FISAs have already gone through declassification review and the President is overruling the judgments of his subordinates to require expanded disclosure,” David Kris, FISA expert and former assistant attorney general for national security, tweeted Monday.
“To say you’re going to throw open the information in a FISA warrant for plainly political purposes is incredibly reckless,” added former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York Elie Honig, in an interview with Business Insider this week.
The release of FISAs like this is off the charts. It is especially unprecedented considering that the FISAs have already gone through declassification review and the President is overruling the judgments of his subordinates to require expanded disclosure. 1/3
— David Kris (@DavidKris) September 17, 2018
According to The New York Times, the decision to sidestep law enforcement guidance and release the documents against the intelligence community’s urging has also thrown a wrench into any future investigations.
“Former and current F.B.I. officials have expressed concern that the Republican efforts to out the materials could have long-lasting consequences, making it harder to recruit informants willing to help with investigations who are the lifeblood of law enforcement,” the Times wrote Monday.
Allegations of obstruction
Even if the decision to declassify did not fly directly in the face of national security, it still represents a gross attempt at obstruction.
“President Trump has intervened again in a pending investigation by ordering the selective disclosure of classified materials he believes to be helpful to his defense,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted Monday night. “The DOJ and FBI have previously informed me that release of some of this information would cross a ‘red line.'”
CNN analyst and former FBI agent Asha Rangappa elaborated on that theory Monday evening, during an interview on Cuomo Prime Time, noting the documents in question were part of an “ongoing investigation” and that declassifying them might risk people’s lives.
“Even though this particular FISA surveillance may be over, the sources and methods that were either used to obtain the FISA, or what was uncovered during the FISA, may be relevant to an ongoing investigation, and there may be people who are legitimately at risk of life or death,” she said. “…It’s one thing to do [this] 25 years later, it’s another to do it right in the middle [of an open case].”
LINT. I explained last night on @CuomoPrimeTime why declassifying the FISA application at this point in time is not about transparency, and also harms our national security. pic.twitter.com/6HLI0WVOtF
— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) September 18, 2018
As Rangappa explained in a series of tweets Tuesday morning, the Page FISA holds particular significance for the Trump team, as it covers a pivotal time period in for the president’s campaign — the October 2016 WikiLeaks email dump, and an increasing number of communications between the campaign and Russia, including attempts by the president’s son in law, Jared Kushner, to set up a “back channel” to the Kremlin; and former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s calls to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“There is *something* about what this particular FISA obtained — or the WH is afraid was potentially obtained — that has it (and people like Nunes, who was on the transition team) freaked out,” she wrote. “Only thing that explains why they care only about this piece of the investigation.”
It could be argued then that the impetus for Monday’s decision was concern over what the Page FISA might eventually reveal. In trying to undermine the purpose for that surveillance, Trump and Republicans could potentially be working to hide crucial information relevant to the Russia investigation’s conclusion — an act that would clearly constitute obstruction of justice.
A massive conflict of interest
As previously noted, one of the key cheerleaders behind Trump’s decision was none other than California Rep. Devin Nunes (R), a longtime ally of Trump who served as an Executive Committee member on the president’s official White House transition team.
It’s unclear whether the White House was acting on Nunes’ advice when it made the decision to declassify, but the close connection between the two has raised eyebrows.
Nunes currently serves as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which previously carried out its own probe into Trump-Russia collusion. In April this year, the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee released a 250-page report, which fully cleared Trump and his associates of any wrongdoing.
Specifically, the report found “no evidence” that Trump had “colluded, coordinated or conspired with Russia” to win the 2016 election. Trump immediately hailed the report as a victory, claiming it was proof the special counsel investigation had no merit.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) September 16, 2018
Nunes himself has faced criticism over his behavior in connection with the House probe. In April 2017, the Office of Congressional Ethics launched an investigation into Nunes over his decision to take supposedly classified materials he had obtained through White House sources to the media. He later returned to the probe after ethics officials declared the materials unclassified.
In August, it was revealed Nunes had traveled to the U.K. to meet with British intelligence officials and discuss the former MI-6 officer, Christopher Steele, who had compiled the now-notorious Steele dossier, which includes allegations of collusion between Trump and Russian officials. Nunes previously sent two aides to meet with British intelligence officials last year. In both cases, Nunes was unsuccessful.
So far, Nunes has downplayed concerns over the declassification, shrugging off suggestions that the move would endanger national security and saying the documents will prove the Russia investigation is a partisan witch-hunt.
“It’s laughable that they are saying this will somehow endanger national security. This is really full transparency for the American people,” he said, during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on Monday night.
“Finally, there is exculpatory information that the president has ordered declassified that needs to happen,” he added. “And then additionally, I think everybody knows there are text messages between the top leaders at the F.B.I. at the time that the president ordered declassified. This has got to be a great day for the American people.”