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Trump says declassifying Russia docs is about 'total transparency,' but some disagree

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting of the President's National Council of the American Worker in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he wants “total transparency” in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, calling some of the details revealed so far “a disgrace to our nation,” but critics say his latest effort to shine light on the probe is a self-serving attempt to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller.

“This is a witch hunt,” Trump told reporters before a meeting with President Andrzej Duda of Poland. “Republicans are seeing it. The Democrats know it's a witch hunt, too, but they don’t want to admit it because that's not good politics for them. But it's a terrible witch hunt, and it's hurt our country.”

In a statement issued Monday night, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced the president is ordering the declassification of selected documents related to the FBI’s applications to a Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act court to conduct surveillance of Carter Page, a former adviser to Trump’s campaign, and text messages sent by several officials involved in the investigation. Sanders said Trump was acting “at the request of a number of committees of Congress, and for reasons of transparency.”

Immediate reactions to Trump’s order in Congress predictably fell along partisan lines. Where Republicans see a commitment to accountability and transparency, Democrats allege a gross abuse of declassification powers to discredit an ongoing investigation involving the president’s campaign.

Trump ordered the release of the documents in response to demands from a dozen House Republicans who have accused senior Obama administration FBI and Department of Justice officials of abusing counterintelligence surveillance powers to spy on political opponents.

“Transparency wins,” tweeted one of those Republicans, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “This is absolutely the right call from @POTUS. It’s time to get the full truth on the table so the American people can decide for themselves on what happened at the highest levels of their FBI and Justice Department.”

Democrats accused Trump and his GOP supporters of injecting politics into intelligence matters. The DOJ already released heavily-redacted copies of the Page FISA applications in July under the Freedom of Information Act.

“I don’t think this kind of approach the House Republicans have taken is good for national security,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. told Sinclair Tuesday. “Once again, this is politicizing the national security establishment and the intelligence establishment.”

Some legal experts have expressed similar reservations.

“The president, once again, is using official process to settle personal, partisan scores. This has nothing to do with making government more transparent or open,” said Elliot Williams, a former deputy assistant attorney general.

However, Tom Fitton, president of conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, called Trump’s order “historic and courageous.”

“This is a major anti-corruption breakthrough that will do much to expose the outrageous abuses by the Obama Department of Justice and FBI,” Fitton said in a statement. “And it is a historic day for all Americans who believe in full transparency and the rule of law.”

The Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have begun a declassification review and some of the documents requested by the president could be made public as early as this week.

The October 2016 application for a FISA warrant to monitor Page, at the time a little-known former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, has long been at the center of many of President Trump’s complaints about the Russia investigation.

Republicans allege the application was based primarily on unverified information provided by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Steele compiled a dossier of material on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia for Fusion GPS, a research firm being paid by Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

According to Republicans, Steele’s partisan motivation was not disclosed to FISA court judges who approved the initial application and three renewals. Democrats say standard procedures for identifying sources were followed. Democrats also maintain there was other information in the application beyond what came from Steele.

The four applications include hundreds of pages of documents, but Trump’s directive Monday identifies 21 specific pages in the fourth one, filed in June 2017. He did not explain why those pages were chosen, but they appear to relate to how the FBI used the Steele dossier.

Trump also directed the agencies to release unredacted text messages from several former officials—former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former top counterterrorism official Peter Strzok, and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page—and one current one, Bruce Ohr. Although Trump wanted them released unedited, privacy laws may necessitate some redactions.

Thousands of texts exchanged by Strzok and Page, who were having an affair and both worked on Mueller’s team early in the investigation, have already been released. In them, the two often discussed investigative actions and news reports related to the Russia probe. It is unknown whether Comey, McCabe, and Ohr were similarly chatty about the subject.

Ohr is a more recent target of the president’s ire. The high-ranking Justice Department official was not directly involved in the Russia investigation, but he did provide investigators with information from Steele after the FBI ended its relationship with him and questions have been raised about his wife’s work for Fusion GPS.

Beyond the texts, Trump has also ordered the release of FBI reports, called 302s, on interviews with Ohr and reports on any other interviews conducted in connection with the Carter Page FISA applications.

It is not clear how much new information the public will be able to glean from the documents Trump wants released. House Intelligence Committee Republicans already laid out their concerns about the FISA process, the Steele dossier, Strzok and Page’s texts, and Ohr’s involvement in a memo declassified by Trump earlier this year. Democrats on the committee issued their own memo in response, defending the FBI and DOJ and revealing additional previously classified details.

Intelligence agencies reviewed and redacted parts of those memos and they blacked out entire sections of the FISA applications released in July, presumably because they did not believe those portions should be made public. Trump’s order may overrule those determinations.

“What’s being released here has been reviewed by officials in the executive branch already and they decided the documents should not be declassified,” said William Banks, former director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University.

National security law experts say there is no precedent for a commander in chief selectively declassifying materials from an investigation of his own conduct, but they agree it is within Trump’s authority to do so.

“The evidence so far strongly suggests this move is being made not to reveal to the public something that was misclassified and should not be withheld because it shows a rampant miscarriage of justice, but because he thinks it will either distract or he’s cherry-picked certain parts of it,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors.

McClanahan is skeptical that the 21 pages of the FISA application or the related 302s will contain any bombshells, in part because Trump has waited so long to declassify them.

“I tend to think that’s probably not the case just because, if something explosive was there, they would have yelled about it being released a lot earlier,” he said.

One aspect of Mueller’s investigation is looking at whether President Trump has obstructed justice, and Claire Finkelstein, director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at Penn Law, said this declassification order itself is close to fitting the legal definition of the crime.

“I think the purpose of it is to strike at an ongoing investigation in which the president and his campaign are implicated in order to discredit the investigation and the FBI, and to suggest that the investigation is inappropriate or rigged or even illegal,” she said. “That raises serious concerns because it suggests the president is trying to interfere in an ongoing investigation into his own activities.”

Finkelstein suggested it may be a strategic error for Trump to treat surveillance of Page as part of a witch hunt against him after the administration initially tried to distance itself from the former adviser.

“I doubt they will get a lot of public sympathy for the fact that Carter Page was surveilled because Carter Page appears to have played a very problematic role and intelligence operatives had ample reason to consider him a target for surveillance,” she said.

Experts and former DOJ officials have warned of the risk to intelligence-gathering methods in this investigation and others if the sources identified in the documents are exposed.

“If you’re revealing how it was done here, you’re basically revealing how it was done all the other places too,” McClanahan said. “It’s not the effect it will have on the Russia investigation that has got FBI and DOJ tied in knots. It’s the effect it will have on investigations and how they can do them and how effective they will be.”

According to Banks, FISA proceedings are secretive for good reason, and pulling back the curtain could demoralize intelligence and law enforcement officers.

“Anytime the FISA materials see the light of day, our adversaries can learn more about the processes we use to keep tabs on them,” he said.

In the past, presidents have typically declassified materials long after an investigation was complete, but this one is ongoing, and Finkelstein suggested releasing the Carter Page documents could prematurely reveal the identities of others with whom he had contact.

“it notifies potential targets of the investigation how investigators proceed and it really runs the risk of interfering with the investigation," she said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., dismissed these concerns, telling Fox News host Laura Ingraham Monday night it is “laughable” to claim this declassification endangers national security.

"This is really full transparency for the American people," Nunes said.

Banks rejected the notion that declassifying 21 hand-picked pages of the FISA applications is about “full transparency.”

“If you want a more complete understanding of what went on here, you wouldn’t declassify two pages here or four pages there. You’d declassify all of it, and that’s not what they did,” he said.

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