WASHINGTON – The Russia probe is back in the political spotlight. President Donald Trump this week ordered the declassification of all documents related to how the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies investigated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race.
Democrats quickly called the move a political stunt in the middle of the president's heated campaign to defeat Democrat Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 election. Moreover, intelligence professionals blasted John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence and a Trump loyalist, for going along with the declassification, saying it was a flagrant example of using intelligence for political purposes.
WHY IS TRUMP TALKING ABOUT THE RUSSIA PROBE?
Ratcliffe has been working to declassify details about the Russia investigation, which culminated in the 2019 report by former special counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller's report found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to tip the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor, but there was ample evidence of Russian interference favoring Trump.
Trump remains irritated by the Russia probe because he thinks it de-legitimizes his presidency. Just hours before the first presidential debate last week, it was announced that Ratcliffe had sent a controversial letter to Congress. The letter said that the U.S. learned back in 2016 that Russian intelligence had information suggesting Hillary Clinton had personally signed off on a campaign plan to “stir up a scandal” against Trump by linking him to the Russians who hacked into the Democratic National Committee.
The Trump campaign quickly claimed it was evidence that Clinton “cooked up the Russia hoax.” But Mike Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, said release of the information was the most “blatant act of politicization” by a national intelligence director that he'd ever seen. Other former intelligence officials said Ratcliffe was cherry-picking information and taking it out of context. They said the information was not the smoking gun the Trump administration was touting.
Ratcliffe’s letter was a startling break from tradition, given that intelligence officials generally are loath to publicly discuss sensitive government intelligence, particularly when that information is unconfirmed. He pledged under oath during his confirmation hearing that he would not politicize intelligence.
Even Ratcliffe acknowledged in the letter that U.S. intelligence agencies did “not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
Several Democrats in Congress said they were shocked that Ratcliffe would release the information. “Ratcliffe is even willing to rely on unverified Russian information to try to concoct a political scandal, a shocking abdication of his responsibilities to the country,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “It’s not clear what any of this would even amount to other than that Hillary Clinton might have wanted to warn the country about Trump and Russia.”
Ratcliffe released the letter a day before former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When asked about it, Comey also said the letter contained “unverified” information.
Trump detractors dismissed the intelligence as Russian disinformation, although Ratcliffe insisted it was not.
Ratcliffe's letter also said that former CIA Director John Brennan’s handwritten notes indicate that the information regarding Clinton had been briefed to President Barack Obama and other senior national security officials.
"Whether these allegations are accurate is not the question,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The question is did the FBI investigate the allegations against Clinton like they did Trump? If not, why not?”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
On Tuesday, after Trump tweeted that he had authorized the declassification of any and all documents pertaining to what he called the “greatest political CRIME in American History,” Ratcliffe sent several declassified documents to the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Brennan said that was a “blatant act of politicization of intelligence” and that the Senate Judiciary Committee was engaged in a partisan effort to debunk the FBI investigation that looked into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
He also said it reflected Trump's disdain for his two former national intelligence directors, Dan Coats and Joseph Maguire, who refused to “bend to Donald Trump's whims.” Brennan accused Ratcliffe — and Richard Grenell, who served in an acting role before Ratcliffe was confirmed — of abusing their authority and using the national intelligence director post “to promote the very personal and partisan and craven objectives of Donald Trump.”
Brennan said he briefed Obama and national security officials about the intelligence involving Clinton for a couple reasons.
He said he wanted to give Obama and his advisers a sense of the extent of the U.S. intelligence agencies' collection capabilities against the Russians — that we “did have this insight into what the Russians were doing, what they were saying among themselves and so on.” Secondly, he said he wanted to show the Obama administration that he didn't care if intelligence collected was favorable to Democrats or Republicans.
Brennan insisted that he was not saying that the intelligence referencing Clinton was accurate, but that even if it was, there was no indication of illegality.
“Let’s say that was accurate — and I am not saying that at all, it far from it. But if it were, there is nothing illegal about that,” Brennan said in the “Intelligence Matters” podcast hosted by Morell.
In contrast, he said, “Ratcliffe's memo implies that since it was sent to the FBI, as part of a larger report, that it basically implies that Secretary Clinton was engaged in illegal activity."