President Donald Trump on Thursday directed that U.S. intelligence agencies must “quickly and fully” cooperate with Attorney General William Barr’s investigation “into surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
Barr has also been delegated the authority by Trump to declassify information related to the investigation, the White House also announced.
Sanders said that Barr had requested and recommended that the president issue the directive to the intelligence community.
“Today’s action will help ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred, and the actions that were taken, during the last Presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions,” Sanders also said in the statement.
Trump’s order came just hours after he stood in the Roosevelt Room of the White House and reiterated his claim, without providing evidence, that when FBI officials launched the initial probe into Russia that the decision amounted to “treason.”
“These are bad people,” Trump told reporters during an event with farmers. “That’s treason. That’s treason. They couldn’t win the election, and that’s what happened.”
The initial Trump investigation began when former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos told a foreign diplomat that Russia had collected thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails and would use them to damage the Democratic candidate’s campaign. The diplomat tipped off the FBI to the conversation.
The developments advance Trump’s desire to dig into the very beginnings of the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that later became part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Trump and his allies have alleged the investigation began with political motivations, though there has been no smoking-gun evidence to support that theory.
Trump has repeatedly promised to declassify the documents, which many Republicans view as critical to deciphering the origins of the Russia probe. Some redacted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court records were released last year, but Trump allies have sought more information about the evidence the FBI presented to obtain a wiretap on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
That wiretap was not authorized until after Page left the Trump campaign, but the president has used its existence to argue that the FBI was “spying” on him.
Barr last month at a congressional hearing, without providing evidence, said “I think spying did occur” on Trump’s 2016 campaign. And Barr has more recently made similar suggestions in media interviews.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told USA TODAY recently that seeing more of the secret FISA court documents would be a key first step to understanding the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. Kennedy said the Justice Department should also review what prompted the investigation of Clinton’s private email server, to ensure that politics weren’t involved in either case.
“The first thing I would like to see is the president declassify all documents to the FBI and Justice dealing with the 2016 election,” Kennedy said. “There will have to be redactions. But if he’s not willing to do that, then I would like to see Mr. Barr delve into the genesis of all investigations about the 2016 election – the Trump investigation and the Clinton investigation.”
Donald Trump is an authoritarian, and investigating his investigators is just another checked box in the authoritarian checklist.
What does this mean?
Sweeping powers for Barr
Barr was given the authority to unilaterally declassify materials related to the investigation, allowing him to “direct” intelligence officials to declassify them. Such documents usually go through an interagency process to determine what can be declassified and released publicly, and the agency where the intelligence originated has to sign off on the final declassification.
Potential for conflict with intelligence community
While it’s not unusual for the intelligence community to cooperate with law enforcement investigations, some former officials say it will become problematic if Trump is seen as using the agencies to go after his political enemies.
Democratic fury meets Republican praise
Democrats, already critical of Barr’s handling of Mueller’s findings, have accused Trump and the attorney general of attempting to politicize the nation’s intelligence apparatus. Some suggested the administration may be looking to selectively release classified material to shape a false narrative.
Trump’s calls to ‘investigate the investigators’ get louder
Thursday’s developments illustrate Trump’s calls to “investigate the investigators” – a message he has used to counter an onslaught of investigations from Democrats following the release of Mueller’s report.
Trump has accused FBI officials involved in the original Russia probe – former FBI director James Comey, former deputy director Andrew McCabe and others – of engaging in “treason.”
More shoes to drop
Trump’s recent move all but guarantees his administration will release certain materials from the early stages of the Russia investigation.
Trump has long said he would declassify and release sensitive documents, including the application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to surveil Page, a highly redacted version of which the Justice Department made public last summer under pressure from Republicans.