WASHINGTON — President Trump has backed down from his demand that his intelligence agencies immediately release sensitive documents related to the Russia investigation, bowing to protests from inside his Justice Department and to concerns raised by foreign partners.
In a pair of tweets Friday, Trump explained his decision this way:
"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!"
A senior Justice Department official said the inspector general had already been reviewing the documents as part of his ongoing investigation of how the FBI is handling the Russia probe, not for purposes of making them public. All plans to release the documents have been halted for now, the official said.
Trump's surrender came after widespread outrage among law enforcement and intelligence officials in response to a Monday press release saying that he had directed agencies to "provide for the immediate declassification" of the secret documents relating to a surveillance warrant, and also text messages sent by former FBI officials who have been the target of Trump's ire.
Trump sought to release documents that had been demanded by conservative Republican House members, including Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said in a Sept. 13 speech the disclosure was important to help Republicans win the fall election.
The Justice Department, FBI and Director of National Intelligence responded to the verbal order by initiating what they called a declassification process, under which the documents would be carefully reviewed. Officials said they reserved the right to object to the release of certain documents, many of which are extremely sensitive.
That in itself amounted to significant institutional resistance to an order from the president, who is the ultimate declassification authority.
Trump had directed the government to declassify about 20 pages of a highly sensitive application for surveillance against Carter Page, a one-time Trump foreign policy aide.
He also ordered the agencies to publicly release, in full, all text messages relating to the Russia investigation of former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, and current Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr, a Russian organized crime expert. Those are all people Trump has criticized as out to get him. All had Top Secret clearances granting them access to sensitive government secrets.
Appearing on Fox Friday morning before Trump stood down, Nunes complained that Trump's order was not being followed.
"The president said immediate declassification of all of this information, with no redactions," he said. "That's really simple. Immediate with no redactions. That was on Monday. Today, is Friday. We have nothing. Who's covering it up? DOJ and the FBI, the same people who we have been having-had to walk through stonewall after stonewall to get this information."
On Fox last night, Trump alluded to the protests against his decision.
He said, "We are moving along, we're working along. We are also dealing with foreign countries that do have a problem. I must tell you. I got called today from two very good allies saying, 'Please, can we talk.' It is not as simple as all of that. We do have to respect their wishes. But it will all come out. "
Democrats called Trump's Monday statement an abuse of power, contending that Trump has a conflict of interest since he is a subject of the Russia investigation.
Intelligence officials said they could recall no precedent for a president seeking to release documents about a pending criminal investigation that law enforcement officials wanted to remain secret — let alone documents involving an investigation of the president himself.