WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday granted Attorney General William Barr new powers to review and potentially release classified information related to the origins of the Russia investigation, a move aimed at accelerating Barr's inquiry into whether U.S. officials improperly surveilled Trump's 2016 campaign.
Trump directed the intelligence community to "quickly and fully cooperate" with Barr's probe. The directive marked an escalation in Trump's efforts to "investigate the investigators," as he continues to try to undermine the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe amid mounting Democratic calls for impeachment proceedings.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that Trump is delegating to Barr the “full and complete authority” to declassify documents relating to the probe, which would ease his efforts to review the sensitive intelligence underpinnings of the investigation. Such an action could create fresh tensions within the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which have historically resisted such demands.
Barr has already asked John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to examine the origins of the Russia investigation to determine whether intelligence and surveillance methods used during the probe were lawful and appropriate. Still, Barr has been directly involved, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it publicly, and is also working with CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Trump is giving Barr a new tool in his investigation, empowering his attorney general to unilaterally unseal documents that the Justice Department has historically regarded as among its most highly secret. Warrants obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for instance, are not made public — not even to the person on whom the surveillance was authorized.
Trump explicitly delegated Barr with declassification power — noting it would not automatically extend to another attorney general — and only for use in the review of the Russia investigation. Before using the new authority, Barr should consult with intelligence officials "to the extent he deems it practicable," Trump wrote in a memo formalizing the matter.
Trump has frequently claimed his campaign was the victim of "spying," though the intelligence community has insisted it acted lawfully in following leads in the Russia investigation and conducted surveillance under court order.
Wray vocally opposed the release by Congress last year of details from a secret surveillance warrant obtained by the bureau on a former campaign adviser, Carter Page. The White House had eagerly encouraged Republicans on the House intelligence committee to disclose that classified information, believing it could help undermine the Russia investigation.
Wray, though cooperating with Barr in a review of the origins of the Russia probe, would presumably balk at declassifying classified information that could reveal sensitive sources or methods of investigators.
Despite Mueller finding no evidence to support criminal charges against Americans related to Russia's actions, his report documented extensive Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign and willingness on the part of some in Trump's orbit to accept their aid.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff accused Trump and Barr of trying to "conspire to weaponize law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies."
"The coverup has entered a new and dangerous phase," Schiff said in a statement released late Thursday. "This is un-American."
Typically, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates declassification work by contacting various agencies where classified material originated to get their input on what should be released or not disclosed based on legal exemptions. The president, however, has the authority to declassify anything he wants.
A former senior intelligence official who served in the Obama administration said their principle concern is that the attorney general, hand-picked by Trump, could declassify and release selective bits to make the previous administration and former senior officials look bad. The former official spoke on the condition that the official would not be named in order to describe the concerns of intelligence professionals.
Thursday's move further solidifies Barr's position in Trump's eyes as a legal warrior on fighting on his behalf.
After Mueller submitted his report to Barr in March, the attorney general released a four-page summary to Congress. Barr's letter framed the debate about the probe over the next few weeks and, White House officials believe, allowed Trump to declare victory before the release of the full report, the contents of which are far more ambiguous.
Trump also appreciated Barr's combative stance with lawmakers and reporters as he defended the Justice Department's handling of the report, and again when he declined to appear before Congress and defied a subpoena, drawing a possible contempt charge. Trump has told close confidants that he "finally" had "my attorney general," according to two Republicans close to the White House who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
"Today's action will help ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred, and the actions that were taken, during the last Presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions," Sanders said.
Two of Trump's congressional allies, Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, were seen by reporters earlier Thursday at the Justice Department.
Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo, Deb Riechmann and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.