President Donald Trump is flexing his executive power to declassify secret documents in the Russia investigation, an extraordinary move he says will ensure that “really bad things” at the FBI are exposed.
But the decision, made against the backdrop of Trump’s spiraling outrage at the special counsel’s Russia investigation, may expose sensitive sources and methods and brush up against privacy law protections, experts say.
The order is likely to further divide the president from the intelligence agencies he oversees and raises new concerns that Trump is disclosing government secrets for his own political gain. Critics of the move say the president has a clear conflict by trying to discredit an investigation in which he himself is a subject.
“This radical policy choice is not being made on traditional policy grounds. It’s being made on conflicted grounds,” said David Kris, a former Justice Department national security division head. “That’s problematic.”
The Justice Department says it’s begun complying with the order, though it’s not clear when the documents might be released. It’s also unclear if the multi-agency review now underway might find ways to try to withhold certain information or limit whatever damage, such as outing sources or scaring off would-be ones, that may arise from the release.
Trump and Republican supporters want the records out in hopes they’ll reveal law enforcement bias in the early stage of the Russia investigation and prove the probe was opened without good reason.
Democrats say the material is too secret for disclosure and object to any meddling in an ongoing investigation.
In a letter Tuesday to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, four top Democrats called Trump’s action “a brazen abuse of power.”
The letter said, “Any decision by your offices to share this material with the President or his lawyers will violate longstanding Department of Justice policies.” It was signed by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Adam Schiff and Mark Warner.
The documents the president ordered declassified include a portion of a secret surveillance application for a former Trump campaign adviser, materials by default treated as highly secret and withheld from public view.
Trump appeared unconcerned Tuesday by the national security implications of the order, tweeting about a supportive congressman and saying, “Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!” At the White House he said he wanted “total transparency,” insisting again that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.”
Trump told The Hill website on Tuesday, “I hope to be able put this up as one of my crowning achievements that I was able to … expose something that is truly a cancer in our country.” He said he hasn’t read the documents he ordered declassified.