In his final days in the White House, Donald Trump told top advisers he needed to preserve certain Russia-related documents to keep his enemies from destroying them.
The documents related to the federal investigation into Russian election meddling and alleged collusion with Trump’s campaign. At the end of his presidency, Trump and his team pushed to declassify these so-called “Russiagate” documents, believing they would expose a “Deep State” plot against him.
According to a person with direct knowledge of the situation and another source briefed on the matter, Trump told several people working in and outside the White House that he was concerned Joe Biden’s incoming administration — or the “Deep State” — would supposedly “shred,” bury, or destroy “the evidence” that Trump was somehow wronged.
Trump’s concern about preserving the Russia-related material is newly relevant after an FBI search turned up a trove of government documents at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
Since the search, Trump has refused to say which classified government papers and top-secret documents he had at Mar-a-Lago and what was the FBI had seized. (Trump considers the documents “mine” and has directed his lawyers to make that widely-panned argument in court.) The feds have publicly released little about the search and its results. It’s unclear if any of the materials in Trump’s document trove are related to Russia or the election interference investigation. A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
But both Trump and his former Director of National Intelligence have hinted that Russia-related documents could be among the materials the FBI sought. “I think they thought it was something to do with the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax,” Trump said during a Sept. 1 radio interview. “They were afraid that things were in there — part of their scam material.”
Former DNI John Ratcliffe told CBS days earlier that, while he had no knowledge of what was in the records, “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were records related to [Russia] there.”
A month before the 2020 election, Ratcliffe declassified intelligence detailing how the U.S. had obtained information about “Russian intelligence analysis” on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The intelligence community, Ratcliffe wrote, couldn’t determine whether the information contained “exaggeration of fabrication.” Both CIA director Gina Haspel and NSA chief Paul Nakasone reportedly opposed the declassification on the grounds that it could reveal how American spies had obtained the information. Indeed, a variety of other officials familiar with the internal debate felt such declassifications could out sensitive sources.
“That document was from a pretty sensitive place that you would know where it was from if you were in Russia,” one former intelligence official tells Rolling Stone about the material released by Ratcliffe. “There were enough clues in there that the Russians could’ve figured it out.”
Other intelligence officials expressed concern that Ratcliffe would reveal even more information potentially damaging to U.S. intelligence sources. “We were worried they’d try to counter the bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee endorsement of the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment by selectively declassing intel that the House Intelligence minority had cobbled together to counter the narrative that Russia preferred Trump,” another former intelligence official says.
The 2017 assessment concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin had meddled in the 2016 election because he wanted Trump to win — a conclusion Putin himself half admitted to during his 2018 summit with the former president in Finland. But Republicans on the House Intelligence committee, led by Devin Nunes, repeatedly disputed that conclusion, even as their Republican counterparts on the Senate Intelligence committee accepted it.
The intelligence community’s resistance to Trump’s efforts to declassify sensitive material related to Russia and the election — specifically a classified report by Nunes disputing the 2017 assessment — reportedly led Trump to consider firing CIA director Gina Haspel in November 2020 as he moved trusted allies into sensitive intelligence positions, CNN reported at the time.
Trump never fired Haspel, and the House Intelligence committee’s classified report wasn’t released publicly. But both Trump and Meadows worked up until Biden took the oath of office to declassify information they viewed as beneficial to Trump’s narrative of “Deep State” persecution.
In a memo to the acting attorney general and intelligence officials sent the day before Trump left office, he claimed the Justice Department had sent him a binder of materials on the FBI’s so-called “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation in late December 2020. The department sent Trump that information, he claimed, “so I could determine to what extent materials in the binder should be released in unclassified form.”
The materials included “transcripts of intercepts made by the FBI of Trump aides, a declassified copy of the final FISA warrant approved by an intelligence court, and the tasking orders and debriefings of the two main confidential human sources, Christopher Steele and Stefan Halper,” according to John Solomon, Trump’s representative to the National Archives.
Trump White House Chief of staff Mark Meadows later wrote in his memoir that he “personally went through every page” of the documents to make sure the declassified portions didn’t “disclose sources and methods” and described his frustration by what he considered “push back” from the Department of Justice and FBI.
Meadows and Trump worked to release the material up until “minutes before” Biden’s inauguration. Trump sent a memo on Jan. 19 accepting the FBI’s redactions and ordering declassification. Meadows sent a followup memo on Biden’s inauguration day. The material was never released publicly. But in a series of podcast interviews recorded before the FBI search, former Nunes and Trump official Kash Patel shed some light on the administration’s broader plans. He claimed Trump had asked him to help retrieve and publish so-called “Russiagate” material the White House counsel’s office had sent to the National Archives in the last days of the administration.