WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday walked back his order earlier this week to declassify information in the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying Justice Department officials and others had persuaded him not to declassify it for the time being.
The retreat from his declassification decree issued just four days earlier underscores the ongoing tensions between the White House and the Justice Department over the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is examining whether any Trump associates may have conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the election.
In a pair of Friday morning tweets, Trump said: “I met with the DOJ concerning the declassification of various UNREDACTED documents. They agreed to release them but stated that so doing may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe. Also, key Allies’ called to ask not to release. Therefore, the Inspector General has been asked to review these documents on an expedited basis. I believe he will move quickly on this (and hopefully other things which he is looking at). In the end I can always declassify if it proves necessary. Speed is very important to me — and everyone!”
His reversal was preceded by a series of conversations between White House lawyer Emmet Flood and senior law enforcement and intelligence officials — chief among them Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Flood had been engaged in those discussions for weeks, but the pace and intensity of the talks picked up considerably after the president’s declassification announcement earlier this week, these people said.
A White House statement Monday said the president had called for the “immediate declassification” of pages of an application to wiretap Carter Page, his former campaign official, and all FBI reports about the bureau’s interviews with Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official who had knowledge of the Russia investigation.
It also directed the Justice Department “to publicly release” unredacted text messages relating to the Russia investigation that were sent by former FBI officials James Comey and Andrew McCabe, and by three department employees: Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and Ohr.
Ordering the release of the documents was cheered by Trump’s most fervent supporters on Capitol Hill and at conservative media outlets, who have for months been claiming that the release of the documents would help prove a liberal plot to undermine Trump.
Trump signaled a slowdown in an interview with Fox News on Thursday, when he said that several close allies had called to raise concerns about his decision to order the release of unredacted documents, which also include text messages of several FBI and Justice Department officials — including Comey and McCabe, both fired by the president — whom the president has for months personally attacked.
“And we do have to respect their wishes,” he said in the interview. “But it’ll come out.”
On Friday, he said, Justice Department officials had warned him that the declassification of documents “may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe.”
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about why the president was suddenly concerned about actions that “may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe.” Trump and his allies have spent months now trying to discredit the Russia probe and undermine its future findings.
According to a former U.S. official and a former British official, the British government expressed grave concerns to the U.S. government about the release of classified information. The material includes direct references to conversations between U.S. law enforcement officials and Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled a dossier alleging ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Britain’s objection, these former officials said, was over revealing Steele’s identity in an official document, regardless of whether he had been named in press reports.
Some of the documents at issue involve the beginnings of the Russia investigation, when law enforcement officials submitted an application seeking permission from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Page. Trump and his Republican allies have claimed that law enforcement officials misled the court to get that permission.
For months, conservative lawmakers have been calling on the department to release Russia-related and other materials, many of them accusing law enforcement of hiding information that might discredit the Mueller investigation. Those calls were amplified by Fox News hosts, whom the president had previously cited as influencing his decision.
The president’s declaration on Friday appears to indicate he is willing to let the Justice Department’s inspector general — which is already conducting an internal investigation of how the Russia probe has been handled — review the material rather than release it publicly.
“Thankfully it seems that saner minds have prevailed, at least for the time being,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. “This underscores why the President should be relying on the expertise and advice of intelligence and law enforcement professionals, not cable news hosts.”
Monday’s order to declassify documents wasn’t the first time that Trump had sought to publicize classified FBI records.
He made a similar move in February when the White House, over the objections of the FBI, cleared the way for the Republican-led House intelligence committee to release a partisan memo summarizing details from the Page warrant. Democrats later countered with their own memo.
A spokesman for the inspector general did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.
Information for this article was contributed by Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post; by Jill Colvin, Eric Tucker and Chad Day of The Associated Press; and by Michael D. Shear and Katie Benner of The New York Times.
A Section on 09/22/2018