Judge ordering DOJ to find out if Trump’s declassification tweets mean entire Mueller report should be released
A federal judge ordered the Justice Department to get an answer directly from President Trump about whether recent tweets and statements by him constituted orders to declassify, unredact, and make public special counsel Robert Mueller’s entire report along with all of the FBI interviews connected to that investigation.
Judge Reggie Walton, who has critiqued Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the Mueller report in the past but also upheld redactions in it, issued that order during a Friday teleconference following an emergency motion filed by BuzzFeed with the district court. The outlet is seeking access to the entire April 2019 report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and unproven claims of Trump-Russia collusion in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The Justice Department had told Walton it had conferred with the White House counsel’s office about Trump’s tweets and that the White House said Trump’s pronouncements did not constitute specific declassification orders — but the judge said Friday he wanted an answer by next Wednesday from Trump himself about that.
“I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” Trump tweeted Oct. 6, adding that “all Russia Hoax Scandal information was Declassified by me long ago. Unfortunately for our Country, people have acted very slowly, especially since it is perhaps the biggest political crime in the history of our Country. Act!!!”
During the Friday hearing, Walton also referenced Trump’s lengthy interview with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh last week when Trump said: “I’ve fully declassified everything. Everything’s been declassified.”
Earlier this week, Associate Deputy Attorney General G. Bradley Weinsheimer said that the Justice Department was “informed that the President’s statements on Twitter were not self-executing declassification orders and do not require the declassification of any particular documents.”
The Justice Department said in a court filing that “there is no basis to require the Federal Bureau of Investigation to reprocess over 4,000 pages of FD-302s from the Special Counsel’s investigation.”
But Walton said that passing along the White House position was not enough and that the judge wanted to know that Trump had been personally consulted.
“I do think that a president obviously has the exclusive authority to declassify information. I think when a president makes an unambiguous statement indicating that he was declassifying information, I don’t think anything more — at least based upon what I’ve been told — is required,” Walton said. “And as I indicated previously, not only in the tweet but in a subsequent statement that he made orally, clearly he has indicated his intent to declassify information. And I think the American public has a right to rely upon what their president says about what his intent is. I do think; however, obviously, a president may make a statement about declassifying information that the president can retract before that information is released.”
“I’m going to have to continue this matter to a hearing date next week when government counsel can find out, and I can get something from White House counsel saying that they conferred with the president, and the president, in fact, did not intend to declassify the information regarding the 2016 election interference by Russia, and that he did not intend to conclude that there should be no redactions … I think I need something more emphatic indicating that this is the president’s position and not just White House counsel’s position.”
The judge set another hearing for next Wednesday.
Justice Department attorney Courtney Enlow argued earlier in the hearing that “Your Honor directed the government after the tweets to obtain the official White House position” and that the answer was that the Trump tweets “were not meant to declassify any information” and “were not meant to waive any FOIA exemptions or redactions in either the Mueller report or the FBI 302s.”
But BuzzFeed lawyer Matt Topic said that “it seemed to me like we got the White House Counsel’s Office’s interpretation of these tweets, and there is no indication that there had been any consultation with the president to determine whether his unambiguous words were not what he meant” and that “if we look at these words, they are very unambiguous — he says ‘no redactions’ — and that clearly means all of these documents have been declassified and he wants them all produced.”
Mueller’s report concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but it “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.” DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s December report outlined a host of problems with the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, especially with its abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process.
Trump’s tweets last week came hours after Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified two heavily redacted Russia-related documents, including handwritten notes from former CIA Director John Brennan that showed he briefed then-President Barack Obama in 2016 on an unverified Russian intelligence report alleging that Clinton planned in July 2016 on tying then-candidate Trump to Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee to distract from her use of a private email server, as well as a September 2016 CIA counterintelligence referral on the allegations to former FBI Director James Comey.
Brennan responded to Ratcliffe’s declassification move on CNN, saying, “It is appalling, his selective declassification of information that clearly is designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans who are aligned with him.” Ratcliffe issued a follow-up statement that said that “this is not Russian disinformation and has not been assessed as such by the intelligence community.”
Ratcliffe announced last week that he handed over nearly 1,000 pages of documents to assist in the Justice Department’s inquiry into the Trump-Russia investigators led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, and he said this week that the declassification process had also begun on a 2018 Republican-led House Intelligence Committee report on Russian meddling.