Trump inflames war on Justice Dept. by declassifying Russia docs

President Donald Trump showed no signs of backing off his highly unprecedented order to declassify various documents and text messages related to the Russia investigation Tuesday, saying he wants it done for “transparency.”

The move, which has prompted renewed unease about the increasing politicization of intelligence materials, is likely to further inflame tensions between the President and intelligence and law enforcement officials, who have been the target of presidential Twitter tirades and who have voiced concerns in the past about potentially jeopardizing sources and methods.

“We want transparency and what I want is I want total transparency,” Trump said in the Oval Office Tuesday.

“This is a witch hunt,” he added, using his derisive reference to the Russia investigation. “It’s a terrible witch hunt and it’s hurt our country and the things that have been found over the last couple of weeks about text messages back and forth are a disgrace to our nation. And I want transparency and so does everybody else.”

The President directed the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to initiate the “immediate declassification” of selective portions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application on former Trump foreign policy aide Carter Page, according to a statement Monday from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Most significantly, his request also broadly included “all FBI reports of interviews” prepared in connection with the FISA applications, which are normally closely guarded by the FBI.

When asked Tuesday whether he would declassify other documents relating to the Russia investigation Trump only responded: “We’re gonna see.”

The President had floated the idea of declassification for several weeks, but Monday’s statement from the White House was the first time the full breadth of his intentions was articulated, making clear that he expects materials to be released despite the fact that there’s an active investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into any links between his campaign associates and the Russian government.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump quoted Rep. Peter King, R-New York, on Twitter, saying: “What will be disclosed is that there was no basis for these FISA Warrants, that the important information was kept from the court, there’s going to be a disproportionate influence of the (Fake) Dossier. Basically you have a counter terrorism tool used to spy on a presidential … campaign, which is unprecedented in our history.”

“Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!,” Trump added in his own voice.

Trump on Monday also ordered the Justice Department to release fully unredacted text messages “related to the Russia investigation” from former officials he’s continually lambasted given their connections to the investigation, including FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and Bruce Ohr, a current Justice Department official.

A Justice Department spokesperson said the agency was already working with the ODNI to comply with the President’s order.

“When the President issues such an order, it triggers a declassification review process that is conducted by various agencies within the intelligence community, in conjunction with the White House Counsel, to seek to ensure the safety of America’s national security interests,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Polarizing decision

Trump’s directive drew fierce criticism from Democrats and praise from a group of conservative Republicans, many who are members of the Freedom Caucus, who have urged Trump to take this declassification step.

“The President shouldn’t be declassifying documents in order to undermine an investigation into his campaign or pursue vendettas against political enemies,” said Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “He especially shouldn’t be releasing documents with the potential to reveal intelligence sources.”

Top Democrats sent a letter Tuesday to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray expressing “profound alarm” at Trump’s decision.

They also requested an immediate briefing for the “Gang of Eight” — the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and their intelligence committees — from the agency heads prior to any disclosure. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff of California and Warner all signed the letter.

“The action (President Trump) has taken, to direct your agencies to selectively disclose classified information that he believes he can manipulate publicly to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the Special Counsel’s investigation, is a brazen abuse of power,” the letter reads. “Any decision by your offices to share this material with the President or his lawyers will violate longstanding Department of Justice policies.”

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said Tuesday that he would prefer to keep the FISA documents on Page classified. But the North Carolina Republican nevertheless defended Trump’s prerogative to declassify the materials.

“I’ve said before that I prefer not to see things released publicly and it holds true for this as well,” Burr told reporters Tuesday. “Anything that’s directly involved in an investigation like we’re in I’d prefer that those stay confidential or classified.”

Burr previously broke with his House Intelligence Committee counterparts after they released a memo with details on the Page FISA. But in this case, he said the President has the unilateral authority to declassify.

“The President has the full authority to declassify anything,” Burr said. “Declassification is the executive branch. It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a close ally of the President, praised the move.

“It’s time to get the full truth on the table so the American people can decide for themselves on what happened at the highest levels of their FBI and Justice Department,” he tweeted.

Thousands of text messages between Page and Strzok have already been released with redactions for personal information and to protect parts of the ongoing investigation, but publicly releasing them in fully unredacted form could run afoul of the federal privacy law guarding against the disclosure of personal information.

Yet the declassification effort represents only the latest front in the larger partisan struggle over the Russia investigation.

Earlier this year, the FBI clashed with the President over a controversial Republican intelligence memo from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, which argued that ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, the author of a controversial dossier on Trump and Russia, harbored anti-Trump motivations that were not disclosed in the FISA application and that the FISA court was not told that Steele’s dossier was funded through a law firm by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Democrats responded with their own memo, which argued that the FBI’s interest in Page predated the FBI’s knowledge of the Steele dossier. It also argued that it was not the dossier and the Page FISA warrant that prompted the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia, but rather an earlier conversation that former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had with an Australian diplomat about alleged Russian dirt on Clinton.

Eventually, in a highly unusual move, the FBI released highly redacted versions of the FISA applications in July after news organizations and advocacy groups sued for their disclosure.

Potential for backfire?

But since that time, certain House Republicans have called for the public release of specific pages, even though they have acknowledged they are not sure whether the documents will help or hurt their arguments about alleged improper conduct in the probe.

Their latest effort could backfire and upend the narrative House Republicans have spent months crafting, should the declassified documents confirm the FBI had more than the dossier to justify the surveillance of Page.

The redacted versions of the FISA warrant applications showed that the agency did raise concerns that Page was a target of Russian recruitment and might have been working with the Kremlin. Page has denied the allegations. A footnote also disclosed a political motivation behind the Steele dossier and said the person behind it was likely looking for information to discredit Trump’s campaign, but Trump did not order the vast majority of that portion of the October 2016 FISA declassified Monday.

Some 30 members of Congress have reviewed largely unredacted versions of the highly sensitive FISA applications, but several of the most vocal members of the current declassification campaign have not.

CNN’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.