Later, in the Oval Office, the president called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and said he hoped to bring “total transparency.”
“The things that have been found over the last couple of weeks about text messages back and forth are a disgrace to our nation,” he said.
The comments are a reference to Trump’s order on Monday night that the Justice Department declassify materials related to the Russia investigation, including portions of a secret court order to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The order was issued under what is known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is commonly referred to in national security circles as FISA.
Democrats and former national security officials have said that Trump’s directive is a dangerous one — threatening to undermine an ongoing investigation of his own campaign and potentially revealing confidential law enforcement and intelligence sources.
Democrats on the Gang of Eight — which includes the leaders of the House and Senate and the leaders of each chamber’s intelligence committee — on Tuesday called the move a “brazen abuse of power” and asked for a briefing before any materials were disclosed.
The Justice Department, though, offered a somewhat muted initial reaction, saying in a statement that such a command from the president “triggers a declassification review process that is conducted by various agencies within the intelligence community,” and officials were “already working with the Director of National Intelligence to comply with the President’s order.”
The president’s conservative allies had this month appealed directly to the president to release the materials, and they praised Trump’s directive as a win for transparency. Like the president, they have accused the Justice Department of hiding information they say would be damaging to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference.
It was not immediately clear how soon any of the material could be made public. In addition to ordering the declassification of the Page order, Trump instructed the Justice Department to declassify interviews conducted in the preparation of it. He also ordered the department to release the investigation-related text messages of former Justice Department and FBI officials whom he has frequently criticized: former FBI director James B. Comey; former deputy director Andrew McCabe; former FBI lawyer Lisa Page; former FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok; and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.
Some of that work could be completed in days, according to people familiar with the process who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. The FISA documents have been reviewed previously by law enforcement officials, and releasing another, less redacted version could happen fairly quickly, according to a person familiar with the matter, who said similar work has been done on the Ohr interview documents that the president wants released.
What could take longer, however, are documents describing FBI interviews in the Russia probe, as well as the internal FBI text messages. Those demands caught some Justice Department officials by surprise, and officials must now review potentially large volumes of information and decide which are covered by the White House order.
Thousands of text messages from Strzok and Page already have been made public because the inspector general discovered that the two, who were involved in both the Russia investigation and the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, were exchanging anti-Trump sentiments; their communications were eventually turned over to Congress and released.
In recent weeks, conservatives have seized on newly released messages between Strzok and Page, suggesting that the pair engineered media leaks to hurt Trump. Those messages, though, were divorced from context, and Strzok’s lawyer has said they referred not to fostering leaks, but rather a Justice Department effort to stop them.
Since The Washington Post first revealed the existence of the Page surveillance order last year, details of the classified court orders also have been trickling out.
This summer, officials released heavily redacted versions of the first October 2016 FISA application and three renewals stretching to September 2017.
The unredacted portions of the first FISA application spell out in stark terms the FBI’s suspicions that Page was being recruited by the Russians to secretly act as their agent as they sought to “undermine and influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The unredacted portion also makes clear that some of those suspicions are based on information provided by British ex-spy Christopher Steele, who had been hired by a U.S. firm, Fusion GPS, to do research into Trump’s possible ties to Russia. Though Fusion started its work for a Republican donor, by the time Steele was hired, it was working for a law firm representing the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Those connections are at the heart of Trump’s charge against the FBI’s Russia investigation — that it was rooted in political opposition research for Democrats. The president’s supporters have accused the FBI of misusing the government’s surveillance powers to target a political enemy — Trump. Current and former law enforcement officials have vehemently denied those accusations, saying they met the probable-cause standard to investigate Page and others for possibly acting on Russia’s behalf. Page had left the campaign before the electronic surveillance began.
Trump’s supporters in Congress have argued that releasing the full document would show the unfair nature of the surveillance. In particular, they have focused on the first FISA order in October 2016. But the president’s order focuses on pages from the June 2017 FISA order — after Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate Russian interference — which could contain more recent details of what the FBI has found.
Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that Bruce Ohr is a former Justice Department official. He is still employed at Justice.