President Trump’s controversial order to declassify materials associated with the federal investigation into his campaign’s alleged Russia ties was validation for his closest congressional allies, who escalated their long-running feud with the Justice Department by skipping formality and going straight to the White House.
Conservative Republicans have pummeled top Justice officials for months, accusing them of failing to provide Congress with documents they say would expose the “rotten” foundations of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Their efforts went so far as to pursue impeachment proceedings against Mueller’s overseer, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
For a while, they had the backing of party leaders on Capitol Hill. But in recent weeks, congressional GOP leaders have lost their patience with the relentlessly combative approach, arguing that Rosenstein and other Justice Department officials have been more cooperative with requests of late. Even some of the conservative Republicans most frustrated with Rosenstein now acknowledge the Justice Department’s efforts to comply with their document requests have improved. The change, one aide said, has cost Trump allies a key talking point they’re no longer able to push with their base.
But that doesn’t mean Trump’s congressional allies are satisfied. This month, leading conservatives asked the president to go around the Justice Department — a tactic, some said, that would be more efficient than trying once again to use traditional congressional channels to procure sensitive materials.
“At this point, the only way to really shake the tree and have the fruit drop off is have the executive branch help,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said last week in an interview with The Washington Post, expressing frustration that efforts to work through Congress to unearth information they believe to be damaging to the Mueller probe have been “laborious” and “without a whole lot of fruit.”
It worked: On Monday evening, Trump directed the Justice Department to hand over about 20 pages of the FBI’s application to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, the reports from related interviews plus memos written by Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who interviewed the author of a controversial dossier detailing Trump’s alleged personal and financial links to Russia.
Trump also ordered the release of all Russia-related text messages on devices used by former senior FBI and Justice Department officials, including then-FBI Director James B. Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe.
Trump and his allies have accused the Justice Department of intentionally withholding that information, although hundreds of thousands of documents have been made available to committees investigating how federal law enforcement officials handled probes of Trump’s campaign and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
It is not the first time Trump has enabled the declassification of information related to the Russia probe. “We went through a very similar process with the Nunes memo,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), another Trump supporter, said in an interview last week, referring to when Trump decided not to block House Intelligence Committee Republicans from releasing a memo written by Chairman Devin Nunes (Calif.), pertaining to the FBI’s application to surveil Page.
No committees voted this time to ask Trump to declassify the Justice Department documents, although House Republicans have cast other votes to force the agency to make materials available to members of Congress.
But even after subpoenas, votes and the intervention of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) with Justice Department officials, conservative Republicans said they had achieved only moderate success — and at a frustrating pace.
“In a perfect world, there would be a lot more subpoenas and a lot more aggressive position on behalf of a Republican leadership,” Meadows said. “But when all of that falls apart, I’m one that will explore every opportunity, and that means making direct appeals to the administration is certainly not off the table.”
Ryan’s office and the White House declined to comment.
Trump’s animus toward senior officials in the Justice Department for not quashing Mueller’s probe is well-established, and several lawmakers — especially Democrats — say this latest declassification order is an effort to thwart Mueller’s probe as it appears to be moving closer to the president’s inner circle.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said Trump’s order is an attempt “to intervene in a pending law enforcement investigation by ordering the selective release of materials he believes are helpful to his defense team and thinks will advance a false narrative.”
Late Tuesday, Schiff and the other Democratic in the Gang of Eight — composed of the congressional and intelligence committee leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress that receives the most sensitive intelligence briefings — sent a letter to Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats urging them not to comply with Trump’s order.
“Any decision by your offices to share this material with the president or his lawyers will violate long-standing Department of Justice policies, as well as assurances you have provided to us,” they wrote, asking for an immediate briefing to explain how the agencies intended to comply.
Although Trump’s congressional allies insist that politics played no part in their considerations, the release of these documents is likely one of the last chances they will have to make a new, public campaign against the foundations of Mueller’s probe before a high-stakes midterm election in which the House majority is on the line.
The House Judiciary and Oversight committees’ ongoing joint investigation will continue holding closed-door interviews with key witnesses in the next few weeks, including with Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr, who worked with the research firm that produced the Trump-Russia dossier. But the joint panel is not expected to conduct any more public witness testimony until after the election.
Conservative lawmakers have not said whether they will continue to seek further information from the Justice Department after this latest batch of documents is declassified — the timeline for which is unclear. But when asked last week if, for their purposes, approaching the president would be a better long-term strategy than going through congressional channels, they remained coy.
“Maybe,” House Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said, smiling. “Maybe.”