In announcing that President Donald Trump had ordered the declassification of several documents related to the investigation of possible ties between his 2016 campaign and Russia, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made it sound like there was no politics involved. The disclosures were designed, Sanders said, “for reasons of transparency” and to accommodate requests from Congress.
But Trump himself said the quiet part out loud. On Tuesday he approvingly tweeted a quote from Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford): “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 campaign, which is unprecedented in our history.” Then, in his own words, Trump added: “Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!”
So this declassification, which is likely to drag out for some time as a bureaucratic review process proceeds, is clearly not about transparency as such; it’s part of Trump’s campaign to delegitimize an investigation he has termed a “Rigged Witch Hunt” (as opposed to an honest witch hunt?).
The documents to be declassified include 20 pages of a June 2017 application to the Foreign Intelligencve Surveillance Court to conduct secret surveillance of Carter Page, the ingenuous former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor suspected by the FBI of being a Russian spy; text messages involving various figures involved in the investigation, including former FBI director James B. Comey and Peter Strzok, a senior FBI official who was fired in August; and FBI reports of interviews with Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department expert on Russian organized crime with whom Trump has become obsessed. It’s a sort of Who’s Who of the “Rigged Witch Hunt.”
If there was any doubt that this was the purpose of the declassification, it was dispelled when Trump’s action was welcomed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has run interference for the administration going back to the time he propagated the theory about improper “unmasking” of Trump transition officials by the outgoing Obama administration.
So it’s clear that the declassification is politically motivated and self-serving. Is it also an obstruction of justice and a threat to national security, as some Democrats claim? That’s a harder call, at least until the material is made public. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Nunes’ opposite number on the Intelligence Committee, said that the Justice Department and FBI “previously informed me that release of some of this information would cross a “‘red line.’”
But intelligence and law-enforcement officials were also apprehensive about public release back in February of the so-called Nunes Memo (remember that?), the tendentious document prepared by House Republicans that was supposed to vindicate Trump’s criticism of the Russia investigation. In the form in which it was released, however, it proved not to be that sensational. Actually, it undermined the Republican narrative by conceding that the Russia investigation was triggered not by the so-called Steele Dossier that figured in the Page warrant application but rather by information about George Papadopoulos, Trump’s loose-lipped former campaign adviser.
Still, even if the material Trump wants to release doesn’t derail the Russia investigation or compromise sources and methods, his motives in declassifying it are characteristically contemptible.
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.