President Trump has ordered the declassification of a series of highly sensitive documents related to the Russia investigation, the White House announced Monday.
Under the order, classified parts of a surveillance application that allowed the FBI to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page will become public in addition to “all text messages relating to the Russia investigation” from former FBI Director James Comey and several other top federal officials.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the decision was made “at the request of a number of committees of Congress and for reasons of transparency.”
“When the President issues such an order, it triggers a declassification review process that is conducted by various agencies within the intelligence community, in conjunction with the White House Counsel, to seek to ensure the safety of America’s national security interests,” the Department of Justice said in a statement Monday evening. “The Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are already working with the Director of National Intelligence to comply with the President’s order.”
The office of the Director of National Intelligence said it “is working expeditiously with our interagency partners to conduct a declassification review of the documents.”
The move will please House conservatives who have been clamoring for the documents’ release, saying it will back up their argument that the Russia investigation has been tainted by political bias.
But it is likely to ratchet up tensions with law enforcement officials and Democrats who believe the order is an improper effort by Trump and his congressional allies to interfere in an ongoing investigation.
The White House made the long-expected announcement on a day when it faced a barrage of negative headlines related to sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The release was seen by critics as an attempt to change that narrative.
The document release, however, could spark a political firestorm of its own.
It is certain to fuel charges that the president is trying to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which is looking into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — and whether Trump tried to obstruct federal investigators.
David Kris, who served in the Bush and Obama administrations, described the president’s declassification decision as “off the charts” unprecedented.
Kris said it was already an unprecedented act for the Department of Justice to release a heavily redacted version of the Page warrant in July under a Freedom of Information Act request.
What the president did on Monday is “even more unprecedented,” particularly given the fact that the White House was overruling agencies.
“And all of this is happening in an investigation where the president is personally involved — which means at a minimum he is operating at a conflict of interest. It is off the charts for all those reasons,” said Kris, founder of Culper Partners consulting firm.
Trump has repeatedly blasted the investigation as a “witch hunt” and has threatened to shut it down or fire Justice Department officials who are overseeing it.
Mueller’s investigation only seems to be gaining steam. On Friday, prosecutors secured a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort that included an agreement to fully cooperate with the special counsel’s office.
The documents are central to Republican charges that the FBI exhibited bias in an investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton email and in its decision to begin a probe into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.
Republicans have zeroed in on two former FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who exchanged text messages critical of Trump before the election. Strzok, who was removed from the Russia investigation after an internal probe revealed the messages, was fired by the Justice Department in August.
Trump’s order Monday covers text messages exchanged by Strzok and Lisa Page, who is not related to Carter Page.
A group of House conservatives issued a direct plea last month to Trump to declassify the documents related to Carter Page, arguing that they would prove longstanding GOP accusations that the FBI improperly sought a warrant to spy on the former foreign policy adviser.
The White House also said Trump would grant Republican requests to declassify FBI reports on interviews with Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department employee who has faced GOP criticism for his ties to Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent who compiled a dossier of salacious claims about Trump’s involvement with Russia.
Some House conservatives have argued the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant against Carter Page was wrongly obtained because it used information from the dossier, much of which is unverified, and thus the entire Russia probe stands on shaky legal ground.
They also say the FBI was not forthcoming enough about the dossier’s ties to Democrats. An opposition research firm that hired Steele to compile the dossier was partially funded by Democratic supporters of Clinton.
Earlier this year, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a previously classified memo arguing that the “unverified” dossier made up an “essential part” of the Carter Page FISA application and that federal authorities failed to disclose key facts that could have played a key role in a surveillance court’s decision to grant the warrant.
One Republican source familiar with the classified documents said they support the claim that the FBI and Justice Department knew key information before the FISA filing, but failed to include it in the application.
But the House Intelligence panel and other bodies have said the Russia probe began after the FBI discovered that another campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, told an Australian diplomat that Russia had incriminating information about Clinton.
Officials have also maintained that the dossier did not provide a basis for the January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment of Russian interference.
Republican efforts, meanwhile, have caused friction between House conservatives and the Justice Department, as lawmakers have tussled with the administration over document requests related to their inquiry.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill last week that if the president does not respect what the FBI and Department of Justice described as “redlines” with the FISA warrant, then he would be “clearly crossing a redline” himself.
“It is clear that our majority doesn’t care whether they burn people or burn sources of information. As long as they can serve the president that’s all they care about. That’s a terrible priority and one that has long-term repercussions,” Schiff said.