U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday declassified a trove of documents related to the early days of the FBI’s Russia investigation, including a portion of a secret surveillance warrant application and former FBI director James Comey’s text messages.
Mr. Trump made the extraordinary move in response to calls from his allies in Congress who say they believe the Russia investigation was tainted by anti-Trump bias within the ranks of the FBI and Justice Department. It also came as Mr. Trump continued his efforts to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe in the wake of the guilty plea of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and amid the continuing grand jury investigation into a long-time associate, Roger Stone.
Mr. Trump’s decision will result in the release of text messages and documents involving several top Justice Department and FBI officials who the President has repeatedly attacked over the past year.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Mr. Trump’s decision in a written statement, saying the President had directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department to declassify the documents “at the request of a number of committees of Congress, and for reasons of transparency.” It was unclear how soon the documents would be released.
In statements on Monday evening, the Justice Department and the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said they are working together to comply with Mr. Trump’s order, which triggers a declassification review by various agencies “to seek to ensure the safety of America’s national security interests.” That review is now in progress.
According to the statement, Mr. Trump declassified 21 pages of the 101-page June, 2017, application to obtain a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016.
Those pages only make up a small part of the 412 pages of FISA applications and warrants related to Mr. Page released by the FBI earlier this year in heavily redacted format. The June, 2017, application was the last of four filed by the Justice Department in support of FISA court orders allowing the monitoring of Mr. Page for nearly a year.
According to the redacted version, three of the declassified pages involve information included in a section titled The Russian Government’s Co-ordinated Efforts to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. That section includes reference to potential co-ordination between people associated with Mr. Trump’s campaign and the Russian election interference effort.
The other 18 pages appear to relate to information the government submitted that came from ex-British spy Christopher Steele before the presidential election. Steele was a long-time FBI informant whose Democratic-funded research into Trump ties to Russia was compiled into a dossier that has become a partisan lightning rod since its publication in January, 2017.
In addition to the FISA applications pages, the President is declassifying all FBI reports documenting interviews in connection with the Page surveillance warrant as well as those documenting interviews with senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who was in contact with Mr. Steele.
According to Ms. Sanders’s statement, Mr. Trump also directed the Justice Department to publicly release in full the text messages of Mr. Comey, Mr. Ohr, former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and former FBI special agent Peter Strzok that are related to the Russia investigation.
The move comes after a small group of Republicans in Congress, all staunch allies of Mr. Trump, held a news conference last week asking him to declassify the documents. Democrats criticized the effort, saying the GOP lawmakers are trying to discredit the Justice Department in an effort to protect Mr. Trump from Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
Mr. Trump made a similar move in February when the White House, over the objections of the FBI and intelligence community, cleared the way for the Republican-led House intelligence committee to release a partisan memo about the surveillance warrant on Mr. Page. Democrats weeks later released their own memo.
The disclosures were unprecedented given that surveillance warrants obtained from the secret court are highly classified and are not meant to be publicly disclosed, including to defendants preparing for or awaiting trial.
The declassification of the documents was quickly praised by Trump allies in Congress and attacked by Democrats.
“Transparency wins. This is absolutely the right call from POTUS,” said Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, on Twitter. Meadows, who had pushed for the documents’ release, said it will allow the American people to decide “what happened at the highest levels of their FBI and Justice Department.”
And the No. 3 Republican in the House, Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, tweeted that Mr. Trump made the right call.
“Americans deserve the truth about these egregious actions by government officials,” Mr. Scalise said.
But Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called Mr. Trump’s decision a “clear abuse of power” intended to advance a “false narrative” to help in his defence from Mr. Mueller’s probe.
Mr. Schiff said the FBI and Justice Department had said releasing the documents would cross a “red line” because doing so would compromise sources and methods.
Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York State, the ranking Democrats on the House oversight and judiciary committees, said in a statement that Mr. Trump’s actions were a “direct and frantic response” to Mr. Manafort’s recent guilty plea and co-operation agreement with Mr. Mueller.
“With the walls clearly closing in on him, President Trump is lashing out with this extraordinarily reckless and irresponsible release of classified information in a desperate attempt to distract from the seven guilty pleas and the mounting evidence of multiple criminal enterprises among his closest advisors,” they said.