President Trump has granted Attorney General William P. Barr “full and complete authority” to declassify government secrets, issuing a memorandum late Thursday that orders U.S. intelligence agencies to cooperate promptly with Barr’s audit of the investigation into Russia’s election interference in 2016.
“Today’s action will ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred, and the actions that were taken, during the last Presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions,” the White House said in an accompanying statement, which Trump then tweeted.
The president has labeled the investigation of his campaign a “political witch hunt.” His Republican allies in Congress who have reviewed some of the related files argue that the FBI investigation was opened based on flimsy and questionable evidence of wrongdoing, and that surveillance of campaign advisers to Trump was improper.
“This is candidly part of the president wanting to make sure the American people have the entire story of what went on and what will be construed by most people as improper activity within the FBI. It’s also the very first step in rectifying and repairing the damage done by certain people at the FBI,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of the president’s biggest defenders on Capitol Hill.
Meadows said he discussed with the president how granting Barr this authority would provide answers about whether the investigation was biased.
Conservative lawmakers, such as Meadows, have insisted to friends in the administration that declassifying these documents will help Trump protect his presidency and further distance himself from any political fallout from the Russia investigation, according to multiple people involved in those discussions.
The move is likely to further anger Democrats who have said that Barr is using his position as the nation’s top law enforcement official to aggressively protect the president and attack his critics.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leads one of the ongoing congressional investigations of Trump, called the action “un-American.” Trump and Barr, Schiff said in a statement Thursday night, are conspiring to “weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies.”
The president is the government’s highest authority over whether national secrets remain classified. His order gives Barr significant authority over agencies that typically hold their secrets close and don’t declassify them easily. While the memo states Barr should consult with the head of an agency before declassifying its secrets, it also demands that Barr get prompt responses and documents from the intelligence community.
Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff at the CIA during the Obama administration, warned that, with his directive, Trump was entering “dangerous territory.”
“Stripping the intelligence leaders of their ability to control information about sources and methods, and handing that power to political actors, could cause human agents to question whether their identity will be protected,” Bash said.
Barr has tapped John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the Russia probe. Separately, the Justice Department inspector general is examining the handling of various aspects of the case. Barr has said the inspector general’s work is expected to be completed in May or June.
Trump’s memo highlights how much he has grown to trust Barr.
Barr has said “spying” was conducted by the government against the Trump campaign — an accusation Trump has leveled repeatedly but that current and former FBI officials have denied.
Barr has been criticized by former FBI director James B. Comey and other former law enforcement officials for using the phrase “spying” to discuss how investigators monitored some Trump campaign advisers who had extensive contacts with Russians. His critics argue that Barr is parroting the president’s loaded wording, when surveillance was a proper part of a counterintelligence investigation looking at whether Russians were trying to influence Trump’s campaign aides.