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Analysis: Trump ordered the government to declassify information he apparently hasn’t read

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 9/19/2018 Philip Bump
President Trump listens to a question from a reporter during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office on Sept. 18, 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP) © Evan Vucci/AP President Trump listens to a question from a reporter during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office on Sept. 18, 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

It wasn’t a surprise when the White House announced Monday that it was ordering the Justice Department to declassify a set of material related to the genesis of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. For weeks, President Trump’s allies on Fox News and in the House had been echoing each other’s calls to do precisely that.

Media Matters even made a compilation of those requests.

So on Monday, that very specific order from Trump: Declassify precisely those pages of the application for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page that were mentioned in a news conference held by 12 staunchly Trump-loyal members of the House in September. What’s more, Trump ordered the department to declassify text messages involving a number of names familiar to the Fox News audience. Former FBI agent Peter Strzok, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and so on.

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Those elected officials and the Fox News hosts who echoed their demand insisted that the declassifications would demonstrate anti-Trump rot in the Justice Department. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) promised that revelation would help Republicans win in November.

It’s odd, though, that Fox News’s Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs would call for the revelation of classified material, given that neither has security clearance allowing them to know what was actually contained in the documents. They, it seems, were relying on the analysis of people like Nunes and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). They were calling for something to be declassified just assuming that it was what was promised.

Trump, of course, does have clearance and could know precisely what he was ordering be exposed to the public. But in an interview with the Hill, Trump revealed that he, too, hadn’t read the material.

“I have not reviewed them,” he said in response to a question about whether he had reviewed “the memos.” It’s not clear how he interpreted that question, but the Hill’s report classifies Trump’s response as addressing “declassifying documents.”

“I have been asked by many people in Congress as you know to release them,” Trump continued. “I have watched commentators that I respect begging the president of the United States to release them. . . . I have had many people ask me to release them. Not that I didn’t like the idea, but I wanted to wait. I wanted to see what, you know, where it was all going. And I think this whole, it’s a hoax. You know Gregg Jarrett wrote a book called the Russian Hoax. It actually is a hoax. I call it a witch hunt, but it’s a hoax. Beyond a witch hunt.”

“I have been asked by so many people that I respect,” he added later, “'Please' — the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.” All three are Fox News or Fox Business Network hosts. Pirro, Trump said, “takes it so personally” because this is “one of the great scandals in the history of our country.”

Trump is known not to be an avid reader of prepared material. His intelligence briefings are presented orally; he eschews written reports. Those reports that he is given often rely on large graphical elements. Trump will also frequently praise books that he almost certainly hasn’t read, given that many of them haven’t been released publicly prior to his promotion of them.

Shortly before the election, The Post explored how a president who doesn’t read much would approach the job. He told our Marc Fisher that he has no time to read.

“I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot,” he said in July 2016. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”

While Trump may not read much, he certainly makes time for watching cable news broadcasts. He has in the past insisted that he “[doesn’t] get to watch much television. Primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents.” That claim is regularly undercut by his tweets that sync with Fox News programming.

Trump could certainly have been briefed by his House allies or staff on the contents of the redacted portions of the Page surveillance warrant application and the text messages. But the presentations from his allies on the Hill might be taken with a grain of salt. When Nunes promoted a memo prepared by his staff summarizing ways in which the Page warrant application was riddled with bias, analysis of the memo after its public release suggested that he’d overplayed the significance of his finding rather severely.

Nunes also admitted that he hadn’t actually read the warrant application.

Note, though, that Trump also didn’t indicate that his staff had briefed him and he’d reached the determination that the declassification made sense. He cites only the advice of people in Congress and, by name, several Fox News hosts.

What’s contained in those classified materials is still unknown to the public, of course. Before it’s released, the Justice Department will push for redactions of sensitive information, perhaps encompassing a large percentage of what Trump wants to see made public. But this, really, would serve the ultimate goal of Trump and his allies on TV and in Congress. As long as something’s redacted, they can promote the idea that what’s hidden proves their point.

That bit of sleight-of-hand might have convinced Trump himself.

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