Why Does the Trump Administration Keep Releasing Classified Information?

Barr and Grenell are choosing what they think can exonerate the president and smear his predecessor.

After the Trump administration stonewalled Congress on the release of any records or witnesses during the impeachment hearings, it is important to keep in mind that there is some material they are determined to make public.

Shortly after the attorney general assigned John Durham the task of investigating the Trump-Russia probe, the president announced that he had given Barr the authority to declassify any material pertaining to the investigation. That directive came the day before Trump accused FBI officials of treason and referred to Mueller’s investigators as “killers.”

Normally, it would be the director of national intelligence who would determine whether to release classified information. So before Barr could proceed, the administration needed to get rid of Dan Coates, who hadn’t demonstrated sufficient loyalty to Trump. With the president’s lackey, Richard Grenell, installed as acting DNI, the declassification process is now underway.

Last Thursday, Grenell released the transcripts of classified testimony before the House Intelligence Committee during their investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. That was the same day that the Department of Justice announced that they were dropping the charges against Michael Flynn. Thursday was a busy day. It is also when Grenell delivered a “satchel” of documents to Barr at the Department of Justice. ABC News is now reporting that they contain the names of “former Obama administration officials who were allegedly involved in the so-called ‘unmasking’ of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in his conversations with the former Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.” According to Fox News, Barr plans to release the names as early as Tuesday.

What we can expect from this news is a renewal of the attacks on Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice. If you remember, back in March of 2017, shortly after Trump tweeted that the Obama administration had his “wires tapped at Trump Tower,” Devin Nunes went to the White House for a clandestine meeting after which, he held a press conference saying that he had seen intelligence reports that indicated Trump and his associates were included in electronic surveillance.

As it turned out, what he had seen were reports on electronic surveillance of foreign adversaries in which the names of Trump campaign staff had been “unmasked.” Soon all of the attention about that unmasking turned into attacks on Rice. But when the materials Nunes had seen at the White House were shared with members of the House Intelligence Committee, this is what CNN reported.

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.

Their private assessment contradicts President Donald Trump’s allegations that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking” of US individuals’ identities. Trump had claimed the matter was a “massive story.”…

One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.

What is about to happen is the same thing I reported on Monday about what right-wing news outlets did with Rice’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Grenell and Barr are selectively leaking information (often with contradictory evidence redacted) that allows Trump’s enablers to cherry-pick statements to lie about the events surrounding the Russia probe and create what they’re calling the “Obamagate” narrative. These particular releases are a coordinated attempt to exonerate Michael Flynn and attack anyone who played a role in his prosecution.

If any of this sounds similar to what Barr did in the days before he released the Mueller report, it is probably because that is exactly what he is doing. He is twisting evidence to lay the groundwork for his coming actions with regard to the Durham investigation.

Back in May 2016, Benjamin Wittes warned us about all of this when he wrote about the fact that the least tyrant-proof part of the government is the Department of Justice. To demonstrate, he quoted Justice Robert Jackson.

If the prosecutor is obliged to choose his case, it follows that he can choose his defendants. Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than cases that need to be prosecuted. With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. In such a case, it is not a question of discovering the commission of a crime and then looking for the man who has committed it, it is a question of picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him. It is in this realm—in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense, that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies. It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.

With an assist from Grenell, that is exactly the sword that Barr is wielding in an attempt to exonerate Trump and smear the previous administration. The attorney general is using the Department of Justice to create a hall of mirrors and, as Peter Wehner suggested, asking us to live within Trump’s lies.

Those who have worked for the Department of Justice under both Republican and Democratic presidents are sounding the alarm. For example, Mary McCord, who served as acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department wrote a piece for the New York Times titled, “Bill Barr Twisted My Words in Dropping the Flynn Case. Here’s the Truth.” Former federal prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg shot down one of Barr’s lies by documenting “The long list of people who thought Flynn’s lies were material.” Jonathan Kravis, the federal prosecutor who resigned over Barr’s intervention in the sentencing of Roger Stone, wrote:

In both cases [Stone and Flynn], the department undercut the work of career employees to protect an ally of the president, an abdication of the commitment to equal justice under the law. Prosecutors must make decisions based on facts and law, not on the defendant’s political connections. When the department takes steps that it would never take in any other case to protect an ally of the president, it betrays this principle.

Indeed, the department chose to assign these matters to a special counsel precisely to avoid the appearance of political influence. For the attorney general now to directly intervene to benefit the president’s associates makes this betrayal of the rule of law even more egregious.

That betrayal of the rule of law is why over 2,000 Justice Department alumni (including our own Julie Zebrak) have signed a statement calling on Congress to hold Barr accountable.

My two cents on the matter would be that we are still in the early stages of how Barr and Grenell are planning to betray the rule of law. They’ll be dropping a bucket-load of twisted lies in the coming months.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.