Declassifying documents for political gain is one of the more loathsome modern presidential norms. It’s typically done covertly. (See, e.g. Bush/Cheney after the Iraq war.)
But by publicly threatening to do it – as revenge(!) with specific political opponents as his targets(!!) – Donald Trump is profoundly shattering even that sordid precedent.
Trump’s threat came in an astonishingly brash interview with the New York Post on Wednesday, which garnered the most attention for Trump’s essentially dangling a pardon in front of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager turned target and witness for special counsel Robert Mueller.
The day after Democrats won the House, Trump warned them that if they started investigating him, “then it’s just — all it is, is a warlike posture.”
He expanded on that on Tuesday. “If they go down the presidential harassment track, if they want go and harass the president and the administration, I think that would be the best thing that would happen to me. I’m a counter-puncher and I will hit them so hard they’d never been hit like that,” he told the New York Post.
According to the Post, Trump “said he could declassify FISA warrant applications and other documents from Robert Mueller’s probe — and predicted the disclosure would expose the FBI, the Justice Department and the Clinton campaign as being in cahoots to set him up.”
Trump’s conclusion: “I think that would help my campaign. If they want to play tough, I will do it. They will see how devastating those pages are.”
Steven Aftergood, who writes the Secrecy News blog for the Federation of American Scientists, called the comments outrageous.
“There has always been a political dimension to the classification and declassification process, which empowers the classifiers and leaves others at a disadvantage,” Aftergood said in an email. “But here the President is talking about weaponizing classification and using it to threaten and extort his political opponents. Amazing. It would make for an entertaining satire, but as actual national policy it is really hideous.”
It could also be an empty threat. There is no reason to think there are any documents that would indicate misconduct by Democrats. When Republicans called attention to former FBI official Peter Strzok, in an attempt to expose how anti-Trump bias had tainted the Russia investigation, it backfired.
Trump has talked about releasing classified documents aimed at embarrassing Democrats before, going so far as actually directing the FBI and others two months ago to release some. He quickly backtracked under enormous pressure from the intelligence community.
Trump told the New York Post that he took White House lawyer Emmet Flood’s advice on the timing. “He didn’t want me to do it yet, because I can save it,” Trump said. Now he can wait until the Democrats fire first, he said. “It’s much more powerful if I do it then,” Trump said, “because if we had done it already, it would already be yesterday’s news.”