President Trump may have a hard time focusing on a host of issues relevant to running the world’s most powerful nation, but there’s one topic from which his attention never deviates: the Russia investigation. His tweets about the subject have increased dramatically as former confidants like Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort have reportedly offered to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Not even the anniversary of 9/11 prevented Trump from rousing himself out of bed to complain about the investigation, and his rants continued last week as Hurricane Florence closed in on the East Coast. But on Monday Trump did more than fire off a few tweets on the subject (although he did that too). In a surprising move, the president ordered the Department of Justice to make public a trove of top-secret, confidential information related to the investigation, including the text messages of several of his perceived enemies.
Just in, an extraordinary statement from the White House: pic.twitter.com/bP2frd4HLn
— Philip Crowther (@PhilipinDC) September 17, 2018
The main course of the declassification order is the entirety of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application to wiretap one-time campaign aide Carter Page. Trump has repeatedly and with little legitimate evidence claimed that the warrant was obtained illegally, and the FBI’s surveillance of Page is one of the tentpoles of the president’s argument that the Justice Department is biased against him. Trump also ordered the release of additional documents related to the FISA application, as well as interviews conducted with Bruce Ohr, the official whose communications with Christopher Steele, the British intelligence officer hired by the Clinton campaign, have provided him with a starring role on the president’s Twitter feed. Ohr’s text messages related to the investigation will also be made public, as will those of former FBI Deputy Directory Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, his “lover,” former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and former FBI Director James Comey.
On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted his conviction that the declassification order will reveal that “really bad things were happening.”
“What will be disclosed is that there was no basis for these FISA Warrants, that the important information was kept from the court, there’s going to be a disproportionate influence of the (Fake) Dossier. Basically you have a counter terrorism tool used to spy on a presidential…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2018
….campaign, which is unprecedented in our history.” Congressman Peter King Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2018
“Big stuff!” the president concluded.
So far, there has been no real evidence to suggest the FBI’s move to surveil Page was illegitimate. In July 2016, Page, then a Trump campaign aide, traveled to Moscow. Though he denied it after the trip was made public, he later admitted to meeting with senior Russian officials while abroad. He informed the Trump campaign of the trip prior to departing, and upon returning promised “incredible insights and outreach” from high-ranking members of the Russian government. Page left the Trump campaign in September, and a month later the FBI applied for the warrant in question, citing a concern that Page could be a Russian agent.
Trump and his allies in Congress latched onto the surveillance of Page an example of the FBI’s bias. A redacted version of the warrant application was made public in July, but to no real avail of those who had been pressuring the Justice Department to release top-secret materials relevant to the investigation, which was — and is — still ongoing. The released application revealed that the warrant was obtained legally, through conventional means and that the FBI was warranted in their desire to monitor Page. The application also noted that the controversial “Steele dossier,” some of the findings in which had been referenced, had been contracted by someone with a political motive, although it did not mention the Clinton campaign by name. Despite the footnote, the court still deemed the FBI to have had just cause to surveil Page. The warrant was subsequently renewed three times.
The public release of the application was objected to by law enforcement officials. The wiretapping process is sensitive information, and concern was expressed that the declassification of confidential material could endanger the FBI’s ability to contract informants to assist with investigations. The same concerns apply regarding Trump’s order on Monday. “The release of FISAs like this is off the charts. It is especially unprecedented considering that the FISAs have already gone through declassification review and the President is overruling the judgments of his subordinates to require expanded disclosure,” tweeted David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security. “The President has the literal authority to do this, but here, as in so many other areas, his exercise of authority is tainted by a severe conflict of interest, as he is a subject of investigation to which these FISAs pertain.”
“Declassifying FISA documents while the investigation of which they’re a part is ongoing is an especially grave species of obstruction of justice — an obstruction that endangers intelligence methods and sources, risks lives, and hurts national security,” added Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was similarly appalled. On Monday night, he called the the move a “clear abuse of power” meant 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.” He also noted that law enforcement told him such an order would cross a “red line.”
President Trump has intervened again in a pending investigation by ordering the selective disclosure of classified materials he believes to be helpful to his defense. The DOJ and FBI have previously informed me that release of some of this information would cross a “red line.”
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) September 18, 2018
The “selective” nature of Trump’s order is puzzling, as USA Today‘s Brad Heath broke down point-by-point in a Twitter thread posted Monday afternoon.
It goes only to the most recent surveillance application. And only parts of it. So, for example, the president has ordered that the government fill in these blanks -> pic.twitter.com/WgGLlGml9c
— Brad Heath (@bradheath) September 17, 2018
Since taking office, Trump has shown little regard for compromising the work done by U.S. intelligence agencies. In May 2017, he revealed highly classified information to two Russian officials visiting the White House, an act that intelligence officials said jeopardized an asset who had been providing information regarding ISIS. The continued insistence from Trump and some congressional Republicans that information related to the still-ongoing Russia investigation be made public is similarly dangerous. Unfortunately, the president’s attention is laser-focused on doing whatever he can to discredit the investigation. Even if the soon-to-be-released materials contain nothing of substance, their publication will provide Trump and his allies with a new opportunity to cry bias, just as they did when the redacted version of the application was released in July. With the midterms now less than two months away, the timing is opportune. Just ask Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has long pushed for the public release of confidential materials relevant to the investigation.
In this Sept 13 speech, Nunes said the declassification Trumo ordered tonight was necessary so Republicans can campaign on the issue of Democrats 'corrupting" the DoJ and FBI. https://t.co/shk9e5lpxd
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) September 17, 2018
The president had hinted in recent weeks that a declassification order could be forthcoming, and it’s probably not a coincidence that he pulled the trigger days after it was reported that Paul Manafort, who managed Trump’s campaign for months, had agreed to cooperate with the investigation. The order is an unprecedented abuse of power and a marked sign of Trump’s desperation to hamstring an investigation that, now entering its 17th month, only seems to be gaining steam.