Law enforcement and national security experts are warning that President Donald Trump’s decision to selectively declassify and release portions of sensitive Justice Department documents related to the Russia probe could compromise U.S. intelligence methods and endanger the lives of sources. And in an alarming if unsurprising turn, the president said Tuesday that he hasn’t bothered to read the documents and is putting them out because “many people” -- likely including his sycophants at Fox -- told him to do so.
The White House announced on Monday night that Trump had directed federal agencies to declassify and release documents related to the Russia probe, including portions of the federal warrant used to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, text messages from senior Justice Department and FBI officials, and FBI reports of interviews with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr related to the Russia investigation.
Experts quickly pointed out that Trump’s move was extraordinary, unprecedented, and dangerous. Some warned that the president’s direct involvement in an investigation that involves his administration and that he constantly describes as a “witch hunt” has dire implications for the rule of law. Others emphasized that releasing portions of the unredacted FISA application, which details investigative sources and methods, would be crossing a “red line” that “could not only compromise such information, but risk the US's relationship with its partners in the intelligence community.”
But in an interview conducted Tuesday by The Hill’s John Solomon and Buck Sexton, Trump admitted that he did not review the documents in question and soberly consider the national security implications of their release. Instead, he simply took the advice of “many people” who he says have been urging him to take action, doing so because he thought the release would benefit him politically by delegitimizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. From The Hill’s write-up of the interview:
Trump said he had not read the documents he ordered declassified but said he expected to show they would prove the FBI case started as a political “hoax.”
“I have had many people ask me to release them. Not that I didn’t like the idea but I wanted to wait, I wanted to see where it was all going,” he said.
In the end, he said, his goal was to let the public decide by seeing the documents that have been kept secret for more than two years. “All I want to do is be transparent,” he said.
The article provides no indication that Solomon and Sexton sought to determine which parties influenced Trump. But obvious culprits include the Fox pundits he watches for hours each day. (UPDATE: The Hill's transcript of the interview shows that Trump says he has “watched commentators that I respect begging the president of the United States to release” the documents, specifically referencing Fox personalities “the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, [and] the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.”)
The president frequently tweets criticism of the Justice Department’s handling of the Russia investigation -- and specifically the Page FISA warrant and Ohr's role in the probe -- in response to commentary he sees on Fox.
And indeed, over the past few months, leading Trump propagandists Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs used their shows to campaign for Trump to release these documents, often pointing to the political benefits they believed that decision would have.
On July 23, for example -- just two days after the Justice Department released a redacted version of the Page FISA application, the first time in history that such a document had been disclosed -- Hannity told his Fox audience, “We have even more questions than even earlier. This FISA application is heavily redacted. The American people deserve to see it. I am calling for all of this warrant to be unredacted.” Hannity added that “the president can do this” and that if he did so, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation, “is finished.” On July 30, Hannity specifically called for the release of “19 pages” from the warrant -- the president has called for the declassification of 20 pages from the document.
Dobbs similarly asked earlier this month, “Why is the president not ordering the release of this and declassifying all of that paperwork and putting it in front of the American people and the special counsel so we can get a little clearer picture on who Robert Mueller really is?” He’s also suggested there is no “rational reason on Earth” not to release the documents.
As the Fox drumbeat quickened, Republican congressman including Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Mark Meadows (R-NC) -- who have spent the last year using their oversight authority to try to stymie the Russia probe -- held a press conference urging Trump to release the documents, then took turns doing Fox interviews on the subject. Trump ended up calling for the release of the very documents they had demanded, down to the specific pages they asked for from the Page warrant.
John Solomon himself -- a crucial member of the anti-Mueller media ecosystem who draws on conservative sources to produce slanted reporting -- has used his recent Fox appearances to suggest that the declassification of these documents would prove malfeasance by the FBI in the early stages of the Russia probe, undermining its credibility.
All of which is to say that, as usual, the president weighed the advice he receives from sycophants on TV more highly than any counsel he might receive from more credible sources.
“For months, right here on this program, we have been asking for the unredacted FISA documents to be released,” Hannity said on Monday. “Now, the president has done it.” The president privileged Hannity’s advice over that of national security experts, with potentially dire consequences.