Reggie Walton, a federal judge, has ordered the Department of Justice to get an answer directly from President Donald Trump concerning his recent tweets and statements.
The tweets and statements that the judge is referring to are ones where the president ordered to declassify, unredact, and make public Special Counsel Robert Muller’s full report, alongside all of the FBI interviews related to the investigation.
Judge Walton has previously criticized Attorney General William Barr‘s handling of the Mueller report, but has upheld the redactions in the reports, especially in those of FBI witness interviews.
The judge made his comments about President Trump’s tweets during a teleconference on Friday, following an emergency motion filed by the news outlet Buzzfeed with the district court.
In a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Buzzfeed is seeking access to the full April 2019 report regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and collusion between Russia and President Trump.
The Department of Justice had previously told Judge Walton that it had conferred with the White House counsel’s office about the president’s tweets, and the White House had stated that Trump’s statements did not constitute specific orders to declassify documents — but Walton said that he wanted an answer from Trump personally about the issue.
Trump’s Tweets and Statements
Judge Walton was referring specifically to two of the president’s tweets.
“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 on Oct. 6.
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! https://t.co/GgnHh9GOiq
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
The president also added 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!!!”
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!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
Judge Walton also referenced President Trump’s interview with Rush Limbaugh earlier this month, where the president stated: “I’ve fully declassified everything. Everything’s been declassified.”
Back and Forth
Earlier this week, Associate Deputy Attorney General G. Bradley Weinsheimer said that the Department of Justice 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 Department of Justice 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.”
Walton argues that simply passing along the position of the White House was not sufficient, and that he wants to hear a direct response from the president.
“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. 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,” Walton said.
“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 continued.
Walton 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 to his request was that President Trump’s 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.”
Robert Mueller’s official report concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but the report “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.”
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s December report outlined a list of problems with the FBI’s Russian collusion investigation, especially with its abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process.
Trump’s tweets regarding declassification came hours after the Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified two Russia investigation-related documents that were heavily redacted.
According to the Washington Examiner, these declassified documents included “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.”
In an interview on CNN, Brennan responded to Ratcliffe’s declassification move, 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 also announced earlier this month that he had handed over almost 1,000 pages of documents to assist in the Department of Justice’s inquiry into the Trump-Russia investigators, which is being led by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Ratcliffe said last week that the process has already begun to declassify a 2018 Republican-led House Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference.