President Trump on Monday ordered the Justice Department to declassify significant materials from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, threatening to spur a showdown with federal law enforcement officials resistant to publicizing information from an ongoing probe.
In a statement, the White House said Trump was ordering the department to immediately declassify portions of the secret court order to monitor former campaign adviser Carter Page, along with all interviews conducted as officials applied for that authority.
Trump also instructed the department to publicly release the unredacted text messages of several former high-level Justice Department and FBI officials, including former FBI director James B. Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe.
The move is unprecedented. Never have we seen a president declassify documents in contravention of clear warnings from the intelligence community that doing so would harm national security. That this occurs in yet another effort to derail an investigation into his own wrongdoing, and to smear law enforcement officials, only underscores the degree to which Trump now puts his own political survival above the security of the American people.
“At best, a disgraceful distraction from the [Supreme Court nominee Brett M.] Kavanaugh matter; at worst, an abuse of power tantamount to obstruction of, and tampering with, the Russian investigation,” observes former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi. “People die when sources and methods are disclosed, this is not a game.”
That view is widely held among former high-ranking officials. Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin calls it “unprecedented and particularly unwise in the midst of an ongoing investigation. [The decision to declassify the documents] shows no regard for law enforcement or the judicial process, and a reckless willingness to damage both.” He adds, “Much of the information will be too sensitive for the FBI or Justice Department to declassify. If forced to do exactly as the president wishes, this should be a resignation issue for someone in the Justice Department.”
Even those who fight for access to classified documents find Trump’s actions abhorrent. “Some of this information is actually subject to [Freedom of Information Act] lawsuits my law firm is handling (in fact it was one of our cases that resulted in the Carter Page FISA application to be released) and I’ve spent my entire professional career fighting for [government] transparency,” lawyer Mark S. Zaid told me in an email. “But this Trump action is nothing but political, and reflective of his own self-interest.” He adds, “In our FOIA cases, the Department of Justice — Trump’s DOJ — has ardently argued that disclosure would harm existing investigations and damage national security. The declassification of this information runs directly counter to the national security professionals who serve presidents regardless of political party or ideology.”
Zaid wryly observes, “This decision will haunt numerous administrations to come because I can tell you we will exploit this decision in countless FOIA cases.”
Trump’s actions constitute such a grave violation of his oath to “take care” that laws are faithfully executed, his decision raises constitutional concerns. “Certainly, this is yet another action that triggers the threshold event of a House Judiciary Committee inquiry into abuse of power. Indeed, this is one of the more odious ones on the long and ever-growing list,” former White House ethics counsel Norman Eisen tells me. “To play political games with sensitive national security and law enforcement information is reprehensible. To use declassification as a pawn in his battles with his perceived adversaries is worse. It also weakens our national security and law enforcement, and so raises the danger to all of us.” Even if this issue alone does not constitute a singular impeachable offense, he says, if the declassification decision was “undertaken with corrupt intent, [it] certainly could form part of the mosaic of an obstruction case.”
Others see the abuse of presidential power regarding classification as a parallel, but distinct, issue. Constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe argues, “Has this president repeatedly and dangerously abused his powers to classify and declassify information — risking our national security to punish his critics (as with [former CIA director] John Brennan), undermine the work of those investigating him and his family, and reward family members with access to sensitive information they would otherwise be unable to access? The answer appears to be “yes” and, at least, the question warrants systematic investigation by the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.”
Republicans in Congress now adopt the tactic of using declassification as a political tool. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) abused his post as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in imploring the White House to declassify portions of the Carter Page warrant application — and then constructed a wholly misleading memo aiming to bolster Trump’s baseless allegations against the FBI.
The hypocrisy is nearly too much to bear. The president, who won the White House, in part, by claiming his opponent was negligent in handling classified materials, now deliberately compromises national security by making available to everyone — including our international foes — material that helps our enemies and discourages allies and sources from sharing information with us. You do wonder whose side Trump is on.