The world is turned upside down: the press says President Donald Trump was telling the truth when he said on Twitter that he declassified all “Russia Hoax” documents, while the Department of Justice argues in court that the president of the United States lied about that. On Friday, Senior U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said during a hearing that the president’s intent on the subject of complete declassification of Russia documents seemed crystal clear.
Ever since Robert Mueller’s Russia report was released with redactions, multiple lawsuits have sought to force the DOJ to disclose anything from grand jury information to FBI witness interview reports known as 302s. BuzzFeed has been at the forefront of these challenges, while the DOJ has fought tooth-and-nail against these lawsuits at every turn. Then the president stepped in it, promising the declassification of “any and all” Russia documents with “no redactions.” Note: he used the words “I have fully authorized.”
“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.
The president, in a follow-up tweet that day, reiterated 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!!!”
On Oct. 8, Walton, a George W. Bush appointee, ordered the DOJ to “confer with the White House in order to advise the Court as to the White House’s official position regarding declassification and release to the public of information related to the Russia investigation.” Walton also ordered the DOJ to file by Oct. 13 a response in opposition to BuzzFeed’s motion, addressing whether President Trump really did waive—by tweeting—the Freedom of Information Act exemptions that the DOJ previously relied on to redact the Mueller Report and FBI 302s.
Trump, who has called the Mueller investigation a hoax and witch hunt since day one, put the DOJ in the awkward position of having to tell Judge Walton that the president has no idea what he’s talking about and certainly didn’t mean what he said. That’s what DOJ did on Oct. 13.
“The President has the authority to declassify documents that are otherwise currently and properly classified. The President has not exercised this authority with respect to any of the FD-302s remaining at issue in this case,” the DOJ argued. “The Court cannot infer that any such sweeping order exists based on the President’s Twitter statements because they merely suggest that the President ‘authorized’ the ‘declassification’ of unspecified information. The Twitter statements do not refer to any specific document and do not indicate that the President was exercising his Constitutional authority to declassify specific information. They were not an order to declassify particular material.”
But Walton wants the DOJ to get the president’s intent on the record.
BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold, a plaintiff, said that during the Friday hearing Judge Walton said Trump clearly indicated his intent to declassify Russia documents.
The hearing was continued until next week, when the DOJ is supposed to submit proof of Trump’s intent to the court.
Brad Heath, a legal journalist for Reuters, also took stock of the “remarkable” nature of the proceedings. Judge Walton refused to take at face value the DOJ’s assertion that the president made false statements when he claimed to have declassified all Russia documents. The judge wants Trump himself to admit that or, in the alternative, to confirm that he wants all “Russia Hoax” documents unredacted—the latter of which would have sweeping implications for the above-described ongoing lawsuits.
“Rather than merely accepting the word of DOJ and the White House counsel that the things President Trump said on Twitter were false, Judge Walton wants the president himself to admit that. This’ll just be super-interesting,” Heath said.
Judge Walton previously read the entire Mueller report and ordered the DOJ to answer a spreadsheet full of questions about the report’s publicly hidden contents. The judge reasoned that the DOJ improperly redacted sections of the Mueller report pursuant to the deliberative process privilege contained in Exemption 5 of FOIA, and ordered that information released before the election. At the same time, Walton found DOJ redactions of FBI 302s fell within legal exemptions to the department’s obligations under FOIA.
The judge famously said that Attorney General Bill Barr outright “distorted” the findings of the Mueller report.
[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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