Trump defends order to declassify Russia probe documents, says he wants 'total transparency' in 'witch hunt'

Trump directed the release of new portions of a classified surveillance warrant.

September 18, 2018, 1:48 PM

In his first on-camera comments since ordering the declassification of secret documents related to the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump on Tuesday argued his move was in the interest of “total transparency” while making clear his primary target is the “terrible witch hunt.”

“What I want is I want total transparency,” Trump said. “This is a witch hunt. 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.”

Trump noted that his order was based on requests from lawmakers on the House Intelligence and Oversight committees, and wouldn’t answer directly if he plans to declassify even more items in the future.

On Monday, Trump directed that more of the FBI’s warrant application to secretly monitor Trump campaign adviser Carter Page’s communications be declassified and released to the public. The order followed a request from several Republican members of Congress seeking to discredit the Russia investigation.

In addition, Trump ordered the declassification of FBI documents detailing information provided by Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who has become a frequent target of the president’s Twitter attacks, in which he calls for Ohr to be fired and brands the investigation a politically biased “witch hunt.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who has been a leading GOP voice in urging Trump to use his legal authority to publicly release the documents, praised the president's unusual move. "As Congress has investigated, we've continued to see more and more troubling evidence suggesting multiple senior level FBI and DOJ officials acted in a deeply unethical fashion during the 2016 campaign and throughout the early stages of the Trump administration," Meadows said in a statement.

But Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, quickly denounced Trump’s move, calling it a “clear abuse of power” to “advance a false narrative.”

A Justice Department statement issued Monday evening suggested that the declassification was not a done deal, but that DOJ would try to comply with the president's order while reviewing for any potential harm.

“When the President issues such an order, it triggers a declassification review process that is conducted by various agencies within the intelligence community, in conjunction with the White House Counsel, to seek to ensure the safety of America's national security interests,” the DOJ statement said. “The Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are already working with the Director of National Intelligence to comply with the President's order.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it would comply as well.

“As requested by the White House, the ODNI is working expeditiously with our interagency partners to conduct a declassification review of the documents the President has identified for declassification,” ODNI spokesperson Kellie Wade said.

After Carter Page joined Trump’s presidential campaign in early 2016, the FBI in New York paid a visit to Page, who years earlier had been targeted for recruitment by Russian spies.

In October 2016, after the FBI obtained a copy of a so-called “dossier”, written by former British spy Christopher Steele, alleging cooperation between Page and Russian operatives, the FBI sought permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington to track Page’s communications. Steele was hired was hired by the Washington, D.C.-based firm Fusion GPS, an effort which was backed by money from Democratic operatives, to conduct research on Trump.

Trump and his allies insist the FBI’s application for that surveillance illustrates how politically tainted the entire federal probe of Russian interference has been. But much of the application has remained classified, and so have the subsequent applications the FBI filed to continue monitoring Page’s communications.

Now, Trump has directed the full release of sections of the third application filed by the FBI in June 2017. Those sections summarize Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, detail Page’s alleged connections to Russian intelligence services and “coordination with Russian government officials on 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Influence Activities,” and address his denials of those allegations.

“President Trump, in a clear abuse of power, has decided to intervene in a pending law enforcement investigation by ordering the selective release of materials he believes are helpful to his defense team,” Schiff, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

Trump “cares about nothing about the country and everything about his narrow self-interest,” Schiff added.

When the FBI began monitoring Page’s communications in late 2016, the agency based some of its application on information directly provided by Steele in his “dossier.”

Ohr did not provide the FBI with an updated copy of the dossier until months later, after the FBI broke off contact with Steele for sharing his findings with reporters, sources told ABC News. Steele and Ohr had known each other for years, having jointly tracked matters of organized crime around the world.

It’s unclear if portions of the June 2017 court application that Trump has ordered be released include mention of Ohr, who likely did not appear in the initial application.

Meanwhile, Trump on Monday also ordered the Justice Department and FBI to fully release any and all text messages relating to the Russia investigation sent by then-FBI director James Comey, then-deputy director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, former FBI attorney Lisa Page, and Ohr, according to a White House press release announcing the move.

It’s not clear when those messages were sent or what they might say.

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