Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that President Trump tried to pressure the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) to push back on the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling in our election, and that Trump’s request was documented in a contemporaneous memo. Today, we’re suing the Trump Administration to make public that memo – and any other relevant documents about White House communications with NSA on the subject, including documents regarding reported attempts by senior White House officials to get the NSA to intervene with the FBI.
The reported attempt to influence the FBI via the NSA is just the latest of Trump’s many attempts to intervene in the Russia investigation. If true, it represents not only likely evidence of obstruction of justice, but a fundamental threat to the rule of law. Our democracy was founded and depends upon the principle that no man or woman is above the law and that the law applies equally to all. If the President can stop an investigation because it’s getting too close to him or his associates, there’s no limit to his power.
That’s why President Trump’s attempts to interfere in an investigation that could reveal wrongdoing by him or his associates is so troubling to experts on modern authoritarianism. The firing of the FBI Director and efforts to impede that investigation “fit a pattern that’s very common in democracies that collapse into authoritarianism in the modern era.” A key move in that playbook is removing those people or institutions that can provide a check on the executive’s power. We formed Protect Democracy to prevent that from happening in the United States and it’s why we’re suing here.
The last (and only known) time a U.S. President tried to do something like this — Richard Nixon employed a similar scheme to leverage an intelligence agency (the CIA in his case) to stop the FBI from investigating him — he was forced to resign. But that only happened when the facts were fully revealed to the public.
That’s why it’s so critical for the public to know exactly what happened here. Last month, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the NSA for materials related to potential efforts by the President or his aides to interfere in the Russia investigation. That would encompass any memos – like the one the Post identified – documenting White House requests for the NSA to intervene. Now, in light of the new revelations, we’re taking that request to court.
For this case we are teaming up with Mike Abate of Kaplan & Partners LLP, a former DOJ attorney who now represents media and public interest organizations and has handled a number of significant FOIA and state secrets cases.
We’ve also filed an additional records request to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in light of the reporting that President Trump urged that agency to speak out against the FBI investigation as well.
As we wrote yesterday, the President has commented extensively on his own account of his conversations related to the Russia investigation, so there’s no reason for the administration to withhold documents that would provide further evidence. It would also be an improper application of open government law exemptions were such exemptions used to block public access to evidence of potential government misconduct. The investigation at issue goes to the heart of the integrity of our democracy. If the President is trying to enlist the intelligence community to shut down that investigation, the American people have a right to know.
Ian Bassin is Executive Director of Protect Democracy and a former Associate White House Counsel to the President