A federal judge Friday ordered the Justice Department to find out directly from President Donald Trump whether he really intended to declassify all Russia investigation documents without redactions when he tweeted exactly that last week.
The judge’s directive was issued in response to two emergency motions filed last week by BuzzFeed News seeking the immediate release of Russia-related documents in response to Trump’s tweets.
The move by the judge could be a watershed moment for those who have gone to court and sought the release of records based on the president's tweets. For nearly four years, the government’s position has been that Trump’s tweets should not be taken literally, while in other instances the government has argued that they’re official statements.
During an extraordinary 30-minute hearing Friday morning, US District Court Judge Reggie Walton rejected a government attorney’s assertion that Trump’s Oct. 6 tweets were “ambiguous” and should not be interpreted as orders to declassify anything specific.
Matt Topic, an attorney representing BuzzFeed News, disagreed. He told Walton there can’t be anything more clear than Trump’s tweet that called for the release of every document from the Russia probe without any redactions.
Walton also disagreed with the government's stance. He said Trump’s tweets in which the president stated he has “fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining” to the Russia investigation are “unambiguous” and clearly indicated what his intent was.
“I don’t think anything more is required,” Walton said.
Justice Department attorney Courtney Enlow argued that the White House counsel informed the government that Trump’s tweets were not declassification orders and don’t require the disclosure of any additional documents in BuzzFeed News’ ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuits related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. She said deference in the matter should be given to the government.
In a declaration filed earlier this week, Bradley Weinsheimer, associate deputy attorney general, wrote that — after consulting with the White House counsel — what Trump authorized for declassification actually was documents related to the ongoing review by Attorney General Bill Barr into the genesis of the Russia investigation.
Walton, who had previously ordered the Justice Department to confer with the White House and obtain the official position regarding the declassification and release of documents related to the Russia investigation, indicated to Enlow that he wasn’t interested in the White House counsel’s position. Rather, he wanted Trump’s.
“The American public has a right to rely on what a president says his intent is,” he said.
So, he ordered the Justice Department to have a conversation directly with Trump and to find out whether his tweets really meant to declassify and release all Russia-related investigation documents and to file the president's response with the court.
Walton set another hearing for Wednesday. He ordered the Department of Justice to file by Tuesday “a declaration by the President or an individual who has conferred directly with the President regarding whether the President intended to order the declassification and release without redaction” FBI interview summaries of witnesses from the Mueller probe, an unredacted copy of the Mueller report, and other related documents.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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