Tacked onto an otherwise run-of-the-mill tweet from President Trump on Thursday morning was an unusual tease.
Deep State, Fake News, booming Economy, Supreme Court — we've heard it all before, even with those capitalizations. But then:
"Maybe Declassification to find Additional Corruption.” What exactly does that mean?
The subject came up in Trump's interview with the Daily Caller on Tuesday.
"Do you think you’re going to be declassifying the FISA documents that have been targeting your campaign?” he was asked by the site's Vince Coglianese and Saagar Enjeti.
Trump's reply was not direct.
“Well, we’re looking at it very seriously right now because the things that have gone on are so bad, so bad. I mean they were surveilling my campaign. If that happened on the other foot, they would’ve considered that treasonous. They would’ve considered that spying at the highest level. Can you imagine if we were doing that to Obama instead of Obama and his people doing that to us? Everybody would’ve been in jail for the next 500 years. Okay? Can you believe it, where they paid this guy millions of dollars, it turned out? If you look at all of the things that are happening.”
Both the Daily Caller and Trump are overly broad in describing what's being talked about.
The “FISA documents” “targeting” Trump's campaign, as the Daily Caller presents it, appears to be a reference to the warrant application made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by the FBI in October 2016 seeking permission to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. That application is one document, with three supplementary renewals of the application that included the evidence from the original application as well as additional material. (The original application was 66 pages long; each of the three renewals added about 10 more pages of material.)
That application didn't “target” the Trump campaign: It targeted Page, who, in July 2016, while still serving as an adviser to the campaign, traveled to Moscow. Intelligence obtained by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, working on behalf of the firm Fusion GPS, indicated that Page had engaged in conversations with senior Russian political figures while in Moscow. Page denied those conversations — until he was presented with evidence during a House hearing last year showing that he had informed the campaign about contacts with Russian officials. Page resigned from the campaign in September 2016 after questions about his trip to Moscow were made public (apparently after Steele tipped off a reporter). It was only after Page left the campaign that the FISA warrant was sought.
When the administration released a redacted version of the warrant application earlier this year, it declassified sections that included information obtained by Steele. The rationale for this was obvious: Trump and his defenders see and present Steele's intelligence as hopelessly biased and incorrect because most of the information in his dossier of reports has not been publicly verified and because the work was undertaken for Fusion GPS, which was being paid by a law firm that worked for the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign. “The Steele dossier” is often used as a shorthand by Trump allies for “biased, untrue information."
Much of the application, though, is still classified and was redacted in the release of the application. It's that material, it seems, that is being considered for release.
That's the scenario presented by Sara Carter, a regular on Sean Hannity's Fox News program who often shares reports about new developments in the sprawling theory of anti-Trump conspiracies at the Department of Justice. On Wednesday, she shared a report suggesting that Trump may declassify the "20 FISA documents Congress wants” — a reference to 20 pages of redacted material in the document released in July.
To close observers of this issue, that “Congress wants” should be a giveaway for one of the names in Carter's story.
"Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes” (R-Calif.), Carter writes, “told Fox News's Sean Hannity this month that the remaining classified documents regarding Page need to be declassified because 'there is exculpatory evidence that we have seen of classified documents that need to be declassified. The judges should have been presented with this exculpatory evidence that the FBI and DOJ had.' "
Nunes has been at the forefront of defending Trump against what he portrays as fervent Trump opponents in the federal government. It was Nunes who, in March 2017, publicly defended Trump's false assertion that the phones at Trump Tower had been wiretapped. It was Nunes who, earlier this year, pushed for the release of a memo summarizing the development of the Page FISA warrant in a way that sought to cast doubt on its objectivity. (That memo was generally seen as having not made Nunes's case.)
Carter appears to be blurring two claims by Nunes here. He claimed, in July, that Americans would be “shocked” when they saw the 20 pages of material included in the third renewal of Page's FISA application, the material that Carter says may be soon released. (We'll note, too, that this renewal was sought and granted in June 2017, well into the Trump administration.) It's not clear how shocking information included in the fourth iteration of a warrant application granted by the court is meant to suggest that the initial application was unjustified, but we may apparently soon find out.
But that information was given to the judge evaluating the application; it was included in the application. Nunes separately told Hannity last month that there was “exculpatory evidence that we have seen, of classified documents that need to be declassified.” What that material might be isn't clear, but if it's material that was submitted to the court, it was clearly not considered exculpatory by the judge.
What's Trump referring to in his tweet? It's hard to say. But, given his loyal viewership of Hannity's program and that the question being discussed in those circles is of the 20 pages from that warrant renewal, it's likely that this is what he's hinting at. Trump may also be hinting at it less because he believes that declassifying the information will boost him politically and more because he understands that hinting at hidden proof of an anti-Trump conspiracy is more useful than releasing something less than that.
That alone is a powerful tool. Fox News contributor Monica Crowley, once considered for a position in the Trump White House, seized on Carter's report in a tweet on Wednesday.
It's safe to say that Bob Woodward's book detailing turmoil in the White House was not hastily written to distract from the possibility that Trump might release 20 pages from a warrant renewal application.
That tweet from Crowley was favorited by Trump's son Eric.