President Trump’s allies in Congress and the media have long wondered why he doesn’t declassify documents withheld by the Department of Justice that could vindicate him in the Russia probe. What's stopping him from exercising his constitutional authority, they ask? Doesn’t he recognize the growing danger of inaction with the midterm elections at hand, which could spell his impeachment if he loses his Republican congressional majority?
RealClearInvestigations sought insight into the president’s thinking from current and past senior U.S. officials, most of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity. The picture of Trump that emerges plays against type.
On declassification, the president is not the impulsive hothead portrayed by major media, epitomized by his "witch hunt" bluster on Twitter. Rather, he’s characterized by the sources as a deliberative, strategic executive inclined to keep his powder dry now for possible detonation later. (Because his supporters – some of whom have seen the documents – are pushing for declassification and his opponents are not, the assumption is that the documents would help the president.)
Trump told Fox News last week that while he didn’t want to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, he may have no choice but to declassify. “At the right time, I think I'm going to have to do the documents," the president said.
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, for one, would be pleased with that step. Nunes told Fox recently that false “media narratives” are burying the real story of anti-Trump machinations within the government. “That's why the sooner the president declassifies the better,” he said, with an eye toward the November midterm elections that – if Democrats win – would likely place Trump nemesis Adam Schiff as chairman of the committee.
Nunes and others note that Trump benefitted enormously when he did declassify documents withheld by the Department of Justice: the memo written by the House Intelligence Committee Republican staff showed that the FISA warrant application used to spy on campaign adviser Carter Page relied on unverified opposition research funded by the Democrats.
Now Nunes and other congressional investigators want him to declassify three other items that could show that the FBI and Department of Justice worked to undermine Trump:
- Twenty redacted pages from the final renewal of a surveillance court warrant to spy on Page;
- Exculpatory evidence regarding Page omitted from DOJ applications to spy on him; and
- Records of FBI interviews with Bruce Ohr, the DOJ’s conduit between the FBI and Fusion GPS, the Democrat- and Russian-paid opposition research firm that produced the unverified memos on Trump’s supposed ties to Russia. Nellie Ohr, wife of the senior DOJ official, was employed by Fusion GPS to work on the anti-Trump research.
Here, based on the interviews, is perspective on how and why Trump is playing things cool for now ‒ and could well burn hot later.
Cool for Now
Trump’s Twitter broadsides come across as intemperate, but remember Shakespeare on the methods in madness. The tweets are partly intended to galvanize his supporters for a struggle to come. Trump uses the platform to attack “elite” media narratives and reveal to his supporters how a “deep state” operation is directed not only against him but also the people who elected him.
His base is on board. “Enough has emerged of late to give many Americans—certainly most Republicans and a lot of independents—considerable doubts about the legality of what’s been done to Trump, from the election to the appointment of the special counsel,” former DOJ official David Rivkin told RCI. “Trump is being smart. “The more they ‘resist,’ the more they look like the bad guys.”
Even as the president stokes his base with strong rhetoric, Rivkin said, he is holding back on actions that would anger the very officials he is attacking. The DOJ and others in the intelligence community are jealous of their institutional prerogatives – including the authority to classify documents -- and could rebel if he challenged that directly on a large scale. “Trump may be worried that an order to declassify might be disobeyed,” Rivkin told RCI. “It might instead prompt resignations.”
One senior congressional investigator told RCI that such a scenario is unlikely. “When the House Intelligence Committee wanted Trump to declassify the intelligence for the Nunes memo, lots of people warned of resignations and worse,” said the source. “But no one resigned. Those who are now threatening to resign know there are no national security implications at all in the material Congress wants declassified.”
One prominent theory holds that Trump is listening to White House legal counsel Donald McGahn, who is reportedly advising caution (but is reported to be leaving his job in the fall). Trump allies are split about the wisdom of such advice. One former administration official described McGahn as “weak,” but another said McGahn’s counsel is wise.
“McGahn is worried about the fallout that declassifying those documents might create,” one former senior White House official told RCI. “He is concerned that Mueller might respond with an obstruction charge.”
Given recent reports that McGahn spent 30 hours speaking with Mueller’s team, he almost certainly has an intimate understanding of its strategy. McGahn could not be reached for comment.
Possibly Hot Later
Trump heeded the White House lawyer’s advice when McGahn threatened to resign last summer if the president ordered him to fire the special counsel for conflicts of interest. But Trump has a pattern of running through stop signs. In addition to declassifying the intelligence underlying the Nunes memo, he decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and exit the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accords, despite the opposition of key Cabinet officials.
Behind everything lies one calculation concentrating Trump’s mind: the prospect of a loss in November. If Democrats win the House, all the investigations looking into abuses and possible crimes committed by Obama officials will almost certainly end, and the anti-Trump resistance will be at the height of its power.
A Democratic victory would not only weaken Trump’s defenses but also provide his opponents with a plan of attack. Some congressional Republicans have long suspected that Mueller’s strategy is to build a case for obstruction and hand it over to a Democratic-led Congress in order to pave the way for impeachment proceedings.
For those urging declassification, bad news may be good news. The president seems to have been left on the defensive for now, with impetus to seize the initiative, by the guilty verdicts last week against former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort; the plea bargain struck by Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen; and immunity deals for high-level Trumpworld figures.
“The president often lets things play out and stays at a distance,” said the official. “When he gets really mad he acts. I suspect the same thing is likely to happen with declassification.”