By CHAD DAY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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 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 ongoing grand jury investigation into a longtime associate, Roger Stone.
Trump’s decision will result in the release of text messages and documents involving several top Justice Department and FBI officials who Trump has repeatedly attacked over the last year.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced 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 Monday evening, the Justice Department and the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said they are working together to comply with 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 ongoing.
According to the statement, Trump declassified 21 pages of the 101-page June 2017 application to renew a warrant obtained 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 court orders related to 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 Page. His communications were monitored for nearly a year starting in October 2016.
According to the redacted version, three of the declassified pages involve information included in a section titled “The Russian Government’s Coordinated Efforts to Influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” That section includes reference to potential coordination between people associated with 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 longtime 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 Steele.
According to Sanders’ statement, Trump also directed the Justice Department to publicly release in full the text messages of Comey, 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 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 Trump from Mueller’s investigation.
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 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 Rep. 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 Rep. Steve Scalise, tweeted that Trump made the right call.
“Americans deserve the truth about these egregious actions by government officials,” Scalise said.
But Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called Trump’s decision a “clear abuse of power” intended to advance a “false narrative” to help in his defense from Mueller’s probe.
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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary committees, said in a statement that Trump’s actions were a “direct and frantic response” to Manafort’s recent guilty plea and cooperation agreement with 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.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Eric Tucker and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.