Four days after issuing a controversial, wide-ranging instruction to the Justice Department to declassify and publicly release a great deal of material related to the Russia investigation without redactions, President Donald Trump said, essentially, never mind.
Trump tweeted Friday that he had heard concerns from both the Justice Department and “key Allies” about his instruction. Therefore, he said, he’d asked the inspector general “to review these documents on an expedited basis.” The exact meaning of his tweets isn’t clear, but they appear to represent a near-total walkback of his earlier announcement.
I met with the DOJ concerning the declassification of various UNREDACTED documents. They agreed to release them but stated that so doing may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe. Also, key Allies’ called to ask not to release. Therefore, the Inspector General.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
....has been asked to review these documents on an expedited basis. I believe he will move quickly on this (and hopefully other things which he is looking at). In the end I can always declassify if it proves necessary. Speed is very important to me - and everyone!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
As written, Trump’s order — in a statement released by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders Monday — was shockingly broad. He called for the “immediate” declassification of certain documents related to the FISA wiretap on Carter Page and the FBI’s use of the Steele dossier. But he also demanded “all text messages related to the Russia investigation” from four former FBI officials and one current Justice Department official be released — “without redaction.”
Though these documents would have been fascinating for journalists and historians to review, Trump’s goal clearly wasn’t transparency — he was searching for more ammunition to further attack and discredit the Mueller probe publicly.
But there were many problems with his order.
For one, the Russia investigation is ongoing and involves Trump personally — which meant Trump was ordering the release of internal investigative material implicating himself and his associates.
Then there was the certainty that sensitive information would be released. Those documents and text messages could discuss all manner of things, including, potentially, investigators’ suspicions, secret evidence, investigative methods, and information on confidential sources whose lives could be put at risk.
The order to release information “unredacted” also could have violated the Privacy Act, which says the government cannot release personal information about people that’s found in government documents.
So it’s no surprise that Trump seems to have gotten a great deal of pushback from the Justice Department (as well as foreign allies who may have provided intelligence information to the US government that would have been exposed).
What happens next isn’t entirely clear. Trump says “the Inspector General” — presumably Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz — has been “asked” to look into this “on an expedited basis.” But it’s not clear whether the documents will still be publicly released, or whether Horowitz has just been asked to review them behind closed doors for potential wrongdoing. It’s also unclear how quickly it will happen.
The upshot, it seems, is that Trump tiptoed up to causing a dramatic crisis with the Justice Department and intelligence agencies ... and then backed down. For now.