The president of the United States has decided to release a document containing classified information that his own Justice Department says would be dangerous — despite not having read the document.
That's the sum total of the White House's comments made between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.
After his State of the Union address in the House chamber Tuesday night, President Trump was asked by Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan (S.C.) whether he would release the memo, which congressional Republicans have called for and GOP members of the House intelligence committee have authorized the White House to do. The document alleges abuses by the FBI and Justice Department in their requests for surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. The White House's opponents see it as a thinly veiled and partisan attempt to undermine investigations of Trump.
“Don’t worry,” Trump told Duncan. "100 percent.”
It wasn't immediately clear whether Trump intended to say that the decision was made or whether he was "100 percent” serious. He, after all, has a tendency to get ahead of the White House and even his lawyers. But an unnamed White House spokesman confirmed to The Washington Post early Wednesday morning that it was the administration's position that the memo would be released. Then Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Fox News Radio that the memo would be released “pretty quick, I think.”
The reason that's so remarkable is that the White House had only hours before sought to downplay the idea that Trump's mind was made up. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement around 4 p.m. Tuesday denying that a decision had been made. She said Trump hadn't “seen or been briefed on the memo or reviewed its contents.”
“Contrary to a published report, there are no current plans to release the House Intelligence Committee’s memo,” she said.
About six hours later, though, Trump gave his "100 percent” comment, apparently wiping away Sanders's denial. But here's the thing: He did so even as Sanders confirmed he still hadn't reviewed the memo.
Here's an exchange with CNN's Chris Cuomo on Wednesday morning:
CUOMO: Has the president seen the memo yet?SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of. I know he hadn't as of last night prior to and immediately after the State of the Union.
So there is the White House clearly saying Trump made that commitment without even knowing what was in the memo and that commitment apparently stands. Sanders sought a little bit of wiggle room Wednesday morning, telling Cuomo there was “always a chance” something in the memo would dissuade Trump from authorizing its release. She assured Cuomo that the process — which involves a five-day review and has featured Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray pleading with the White House not to release the memo — would go forward. But Kelly's comments just hours later suggested there's no longer any doubt.
According to The Post's Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett, Rosenstein told the White House that releasing the memo would set a dangerous precedent, would jeopardize classified information and is questionable in its accuracy.
Opponents will note that Rosenstein and Wray have a clear interest in arguing against the memo's release, especially if it casts the Justice Department and FBI in a negative light — however justified that might be. But both are Trump appointees, and Trump seems to be effectively disregarding their concerns without even reviewing the information about which they are concerned.
Trump is no stranger to playing fast and loose with serious matters, but this takes things to a whole other level. However people feel about the release of the memo and whether Rosenstein's and Wray's objections are warranted, it would seem to be something worthy of extensive, sober review. And yet Trump seemed to take a position without even knowing what he would be injecting into a deadly serious debate about the credibility of federal law enforcement.
And in doing so, he makes the White House's effort to argue that this isn't just a self-serving political maneuver even more difficult.