(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump gave Attorney General William Barr “full and complete authority” to declassify information related to his inquiry into investigations of the 2016 presidential election.
The president, in a memo released Thursday, directed U.S. intelligence agencies to cooperate with Barr’s review, which he has said would look into allegations by Trump and his allies that his campaign was spied upon and that various figures in the Justice Department and the FBI were trying to undermine him.
“We have documents now that I have declassified for the purpose of the attorney general,” Trump told reporters on Friday. “He can then show them to the public, do whatever he wants to do with them, but you have to get down to what happened. Because what happened is a tremendous blight on our country. What happened, the investigation, they tried to do a takedown, and you can’t do that."
Even as the president has granted his attorney general greater power to look into what led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the White House has refused to allow Representative Jerrold Nadler’s Judiciary Committee see the unredacted version of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the election, or the underlying evidence.
Trump has invoked executive privilege to prevent former White House Counsel Don McGahn from handing over documents to Nadler’s panel. His fierce determination to fight “all the subpoenas” has kindled demands by a growing number of Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings.
The president, on the other hand, has long asserted that Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the campaign was politically motivated and concocted from false allegations.
“They want to look at how the whole hoax got started,” Trump said earlier this month. He denied that he had asked Barr to investigate Mueller’s investigation, but said of him: “I am so proud of our attorney general that he is looking into it. I think it’s great.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before a Senate committee that he wasn’t aware of any improper spying, a comment Trump said he found “ridiculous.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement Friday that the intelligence community will give the Justice Department “all of the appropriate information” for Barr’s probe.
Coats said he’s “confident” that Barr will adhere to “long-established standards to protect highly-sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk.”
The notion of a so-called deep state plotting against Trump since before his election has been a rallying cry for his supporters and a theme touched on by figures sympathetic to the president, including Fox television host Sean Hannity. The directive gives the attorney general a path to selectively declassify material that may feed that narrative while pieces of the fuller picture may remain classified.
The White House said Thursday night in a statement that the president’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.”
Michael Morell, who served as deputy director of the CIA in the Obama administration, said he couldn’t recall another instance in which a non-intelligence community official was given declassification authority over intelligence. Morell, who now hosts a podcast called Intelligence Matters, said the move is potentially dangerous.
“This is yet another destruction of the norms that weakens our intelligence community,” Morell said in a statement. “It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us.”
Ned Price, a former CIA senior analyst and national security spokesman in the Obama administration, called the directive “a pretty brazen effort by Trump and Barr to place their thumbs on the scale, bestowing on the attorney general authorities that weren’t afforded to those leading investigations into other elements of the Trump-Russia saga.
“It’s just another indication that Trump wants to make this about the purported wrongdoing on the part of the FBI and DOJ, rather than his team’s own efforts to conspire with the Russians,” Price said.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in response to the declassification announcement, said: “While Trump stonewalls the public from learning the truth about his obstruction of justice, Trump and Barr conspire to weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies.”
“The cover-up has entered a new and dangerous phase. This is un-American,” Schiff said in a statement.
Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department would determine whether there was any improper “spying” on the Trump campaign, including whether intelligence collection began earlier than previously known and how many confidential informants the FBI used. He suggested his focus was on senior leaders at the FBI and Justice Department at the time.
His review will also examine whether a dossier that included salacious accusations against Trump was fabricated by the Russian government to dupe U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI, Barr has said.
Congressional Democrats have accused Barr of partisanship in his inquiry.
Barr has chosen Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to head the review, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The review will include working with Wray, Coats, and CIA Director Gina Haspel, according to the person. Barr has already talked with Wray and Haspel about the review, the person added.
David Kris, a founder of the Culper Partners consulting firm and former head of the Justice Department’s national security division during the Obama administration, said of Trump’s directive: “There is a lot of signaling to a lot of audiences in this decision by the president.
Using the abbreviation for the intelligence community, Kris said it was “very unusual — unprecedented in my experience — for a non-IC officer to be given absolute declassification authority over the IC.”
Trump’s directive came hours after he released an unrelated immigration memo and before a possible announcement on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. What all three moves had in common was a way for the president to exert executive power -- bypassing Congress or exerting more sway over intelligence community officials who worked for other presidents before him.
(Updates with Coats statement in ninth and 10th paragraphs.)
--With assistance from Chris Strohm, Billy House, Josh Wingrove and Alyza Sebenius.
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