President Trump wrote on Tuesday that he ordered the release of classified materials about the ongoing probe into Russian election interference because "really bad things were happening."
The White House said Trump is taking this action out of a desire for "transparency," but former law enforcement and intelligence officials warned the directive threatens to expose sensitive sources and methods.
The document dump escalates the White House attack on the Justice Department only days after Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the special counsel investigation.
Trump has ordered the release of communications involving people on his enemies list and sections of an application under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — something that has never happened before.
"The release of FISAs like this is off the charts," former Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris wrote about the secret orders.
"It is especially unprecedented considering that the FISAs have already gone through declassification review and the president is overruling the judgments of his subordinates to require expanded disclosure."
The release of the surveillance documents also could cause major ripple effects in the courtroom in future national security cases.
Government lawyers have a long and successful history of pushing back in national security prosecutions to prevent the disclosure of those applications to defendants, said David Laufman, who ran the Justice Department's counterintelligence unit before launching a private law practice earlier this year.
"The president's declassification order — especially because it is transparently motivated by partisan political considerations — will likely make it harder for prosecutors to maintain that winning record because some judges will be more skeptical of the government's arguments that disclosure would do serious harm to U.S national security," Laufman said.
Feds, spies tasked with declassifying
The Justice Department said it is working with the FBI and the director of national intelligence "to comply with the president's order." That review process is underway and a spokeswoman for the DNI said Tuesday they are working "expeditiously with our interagency partners."
Trump demanded the "immediate declassification" in a statement Monday evening, ordering the release of pages from a FISA application about his former campaign adviser Carter Page, as well as text messages about the Russia probe written by former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Stzrok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is among the Republican lawmakers with close ties to the White House who has been demanding the documents be released.
Gaetz said they will reveal "some of the systemic corruption and bias that took place at the highest levels of the DOJ and the FBI."
"Basically you have a counter terrorism tool used to spy on a presidential campaign, which is unprecedented in our history," Trump tweeted in remarks quoting Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
But FISA applications are prepared by career lawyers at the Justice Department and the FBI, supported by volumes of underlying evidence, and require signoff from high levels at both institutions.
The applications on Page, who was exposed to law enforcement scrutiny over his ties with Russia, were approved four different times — by political officials from administrations representing both Democrats and Republicans.
The signature of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the final application — who was nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Republican Senate — has made Rosenstein a political target of conservatives.
Carrie Cordero, a former Justice Department national security lawyer who handled such applications, said she was "deeply concerned about the motivations and timing for this upcoming release."
"While transparency about intelligence community operations is important, the continued release of information related to the Russia investigation, the Carter Page FISAs and related materials appears to be for political purposes as we near midterm election," said Cordero, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"That neither builds confidence in intelligence community activities nor enhances the nation's security."
The topmost Justice Department officials involved also privately object, according to one account.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said he had been "previously informed" by FBI Director Christopher Wray and Rosenstein that some of the materials Trump has ordered to be released amount to a "red line that must not be crossed as they may compromise sources and methods."
"This is evidently of no consequence to a president who cares about nothing about the country and everything about his narrow self-interest," Schiff said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump has ordered the immediate declassification of secret documents in the Russia probe. He explained his thinking in the Oval Office today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What I want is I want total transparency. This is a witch hunt.
SHAPIRO: Former national security officials are warning that the release could have risky consequences that go far beyond the investigation into the president's campaign. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk more about the issue. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What exactly did the president order to be released?
JOHNSON: Well, first, President Trump wants released part of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance application on Carter Page. Remember; Carter Page was a Trump campaign adviser with ties to Russia. In all, there were four so-called FISA applications on Page. Each was approved by a team of Justice Department officials and approved by judges.
President Trump also ordered the release of text messages about the Russia investigation, and those texts were written by some familiar names - former FBI director Jim Comey, former deputy FBI director Andy McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Now, President Trump's allies in Congress say the released of those text messages will help underscore what they perceive as bias by the investigators. Finally, the president wants to make public some interviews with another Justice Department lawyer, Bruce Ohr, who's been on his enemies list.
SHAPIRO: How unusual is it for these kinds of materials to be declassified in full by a president like this?
JOHNSON: It is very unusual, some people say unprecedented. Former Justice Department National Security Chief David Kris tweeted yesterday it was off the charts. David Kris literally wrote the book about national security law. You'd think he'd seen it all until now. I also reached out today to David Laufman. He's in private law practice, but he used to run the justice department's counterintelligence unit. Here's his reaction to the presidential order.
DAVID LAUFMAN: For decades, the Justice Department has litigated aggressively and successfully in national security cases to prevent the disclosure of FISA applications. This happens routinely in prosecutions of terrorism, espionage and a host of other national security-related cases.
JOHNSON: Now David Laufman says the president's directive could put that winning record in jeopardy if a judge decides he or she doesn't buy the government's need for secrecy in a bunch of important national security, terrorism and spy cases.
SHAPIRO: So if the Justice Department tries to say, we never release these kinds of documents, someone can turn around and say, but President Trump just did. This is all about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and that investigation is still going on. So what is the implication there?
JOHNSON: Donald Trump ordered these documents released on Monday night, only three days after his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel. It's not clear what Manafort has that could incriminate the president, if anything, but investigators have been really interested not just in Trump but his son Donald Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, other people affiliated with the campaign.
Democrats in Congress say this move to declassify documents represents an abuse of power, another instance of President Trump interfering in this investigation. Now, the president does have the power to declassify these materials. The question is whether he may pay a political price for doing just that.
SHAPIRO: So as you said, he gave the order last night. We haven't seen the documents yet. When do you expect they'll be out?
JOHNSON: Hard to say. A spokeswoman for the director of national intelligence says they're working expeditiously with Justice and the FBI to move through this process. The Justice Department has no public timeline for the release, and it's possible there's actually a tug of war behind the scenes about how much of this material actually sees the light of day.
Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, says the deputy attorney general and the FBI director had previously told him some of this information - releasing it would be a red line for them. If that's the case, it's hard to predict when we might see this material, if ever.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.