In an egregious and unprecedented abuse of power, President Donald Trump has ordered the immediate declassification of documents from the FBI’s active investigation into his own campaign’s ties with Russia.
The order includes additional pages and interviews used in the FBI’s application seeking approval for the electronic surveillance of Trump campaign aide Carter Page, as well as all FBI reports that current Justice Department official and Russia expert Bruce Ohr has prepared as part of the investigation.
Justice and the FBI had already decided that making the additional information on the Page application public would be a risk to national security.
The release of these reports will threaten the integrity of the ongoing investigation, damage our intelligence collection efforts, expose our sources, and once again give our true adversary — Russia, but also countries like China — the strategic upper hand and clear insights into our most classified processes. It is also the latest in efforts by the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress to politicize our national security and intelligence for personal political gain.
A desperate, emboldened Trump is dangerous
But as a former CIA officer, to me that is not even the worst part. The White House also ordered Justice to release all text messages relating to the Russian investigation from those Trump considers to be personal enemies: former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former officials Peter Stzrok and Lisa Page, and Ohr.
Trump told Hill.TV on Tuesday that the release would prove the Russia investigation is a hoax and expose corruption in the FBI, which he called “a cancer in our country.”
We have seen Trump attack those he considers to be his enemies before. In his seemingly limitless pursuit of his own self-interest, national security be damned, he has continually used his position of power to weaken some of our most important and impartial national security institutions and to threaten and attack current and former public servants.
The individuals listed have been the subjects of frequent Twitter rants from the president, and he did not hesitate to break longstanding norms by revoking the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan for criticizing him.
Trump has also waged an on-and-off again war with the intelligence community, even as a candidate, taking their consistent assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to become president and used an influence campaign to make it happen as a personal attack from impartial institutions he believes should be loyal to him above all else.
While attacking his perceived rivals might be par for the course, let me be clear: Trump’s decision Monday is a serious escalation in his effort to convince the American people that a corrupt group in our government has been working against him. Coming on the heels of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s plea deal to cooperate with the investigation, it shows how Trump will lash out when he is feeling desperate or cornered.
The declassification decision also demonstrates a calculation on Trump's part that he will face no pushback from his own party and for whom being able to campaign on a corrupt “swamp” has proved successful in the past. A desperate and emboldened Trump is a dangerous thing.
For national security employees, Trump’s targeting of former and current officials is a worrying sign. Most national security employees do not expect much privacy between them and the agencies they work for; all of us expect that what we say and do is being monitored to a degree to ensure we are living up to the security agreements we made.
Even so, we also expect that our agencies will defend us when we are doing our jobs, like ensuring our elections are free from foreign influence and involvement, for example. Monday’s announcement shows employees that simply doing your job could lead to becoming a target for the president and Republicans.
Trump will stop at nothing to protect himself
There is very little the federal agencies can do to stop Trump's decision to publicly release this information. After Trump’s order, Justice and the FBI stated they would begin a declassification review of the material.
Regardless of what that review finds, as president, Trump has the ultimate classification and declassification authority. He has it because the president is supposed to be the representative and advocate for the American people, which means making tough decisions about when to be publicly transparent and when to safeguard classified information.
The authority to declassify was never intended to be used for personal political gain, and past presidents have used it very rarely, in general. The federal agencies will no doubt use their declassification review to warn him again of the damage releasing the information will do to national security, and may even propose to redact the most sensitive content. However, we already know how Trump will respond.
Trump’s decision shows there is nothing he will not do and no person or institution he will not target in the name of self-preservation. He does not care what damage he does to our institutions or to the federal workforce. He is not interested in preserving the independence and impartiality of our government agencies. He cares about getting the heat off his back and packing stadiums on his never ending campaign stops for an election he already won.
Trump’s “crowning achievement” will not be exposing corruption in the FBI, as he said it would be on Tuesday. Rather, it will be the hundreds of thousands of his supporters he has been able to turn against the same institutions meant to keep them safe by keeping terrorists out and holding politicians to the laws of the land. For Trump, that is a win.