A federal judge demanded on Friday that the White House counsel’s office confirm directly with President Donald Trump whether he stands by a series public statements he made declaring that he’d declassified all information related to the probe of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
After news outlets suing for access to government records from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation reported Trump’s statements to the court, a Justice Department official said he’d checked with the White House counsel’s office and officials there said the president’s statements were not intended to effect any further release of information.
But at a hearing Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton said the secondhand word of an unnamed official in the White House counsel’s office wasn’t good enough to countermand what appeared to be a series of clear statements from Trump that he wanted all the information out.
“I think the American public has a right to rely upon what the president says about what his intent is,” said Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush. “It seems to me that when a president makes an unambiguous statement of what his intent is, I can’t rely upon White House counsel saying, 'Well, that was not his intent.' Maybe White House counsel talked to the president. Maybe they didn’t, but I can’t tell.”
The 25-minute telephone hearing include the kinds of exchanges between judges and government lawyers that would have been considered stunning under any other president, but have become commonplace under Trump. Walton said, in essence, that he did not trust that the White House counsel’s office was accurately relaying the president’s view.
Justice Department attorney Courtney Enlow said the statements of the lawyers involved were entitled to a “presumption of regularity,” essentially that government officials should be taken at their word.
“That should end the matter,” she said.
But the judge suggested such deference wasn’t justified because the president himself had signaled that some rogue elements in the government were resisting his orders.
“How do I know that the statements made by White House counsel are in fact the position of the president? ... How can I assume White House counsel is, in fact, acting at the direction of the president? How can I assume that?” Walton asked, pointing to an interview the president did last Friday with radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“I’ve fully declassified everything. Everything’s been declassified. They have so much information,” Trump told Limbaugh.
Earlier last week, Trump sent a tweet that seemed to instruct that all information related to the Russia probe be made public.
"I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax," Trump wrote. "Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!"
The comments prompted lawyers for CNN and BuzzFeed pursuing Freedom of Information Act lawsuits for the complete Mueller report and related documents to ask the judge to consider releasing information previously withheld on national security or other grounds.
But Enlow said Friday that in Trump’s recent tweets and comment he was referring to some prior declassification and wasn’t ordering the release of anything new.
“These statements are not clear directives to declassify,” she said. “They’re stated in the past tense.”
An attorney for BuzzFeed, Matthew Topic, said the White House counsel’s office seemed to be putting its spin on what the president said.
“It really sounded like what we got was White House counsel’s interpretation of these tweets,” Topic said. “If we look at these words, they are very unambiguous. He says: no redactions.”
Walton did not say specifically what he plans to do after getting further information from the government next week, but he has been pushing to get most of the releasable information in the FBI reports from the Mueller probe out before the presidential election next month. Thousands of pages of interview reports have already been made public along with the vast majority of the Mueller report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the news outlet Topic represents.