FBI decision to withhold records suggests Trump’s provocative election year comments are being seen as relevant to its own ongoing investigation
By Ed Pilkington in New York / The Guardian / Thursday 11 May 2017 06.00 EDT
Last modified on Thursday 11 May 2017 07.47 EDT
The US justice department is refusing to disclose FBI documents relating to Donald Trump’s highly contentious election year call on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.
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Senior DoJ officials have declined to release the documents on grounds that such disclosure could “interfere with enforcement proceedings”. In a filing to a federal court in Washington DC, the DoJ states that “because of the existence of an active, ongoing investigation, the FBI anticipates that it will … withhold all records.”
The statement suggests that Trump’s provocative comment last July is being seen by the FBI as relevant to its own ongoing investigation.
In March, the then director of the FBI James Comey confirmed the existence of that investigation to a Congressional hearing. On Tuesday Comey was summarily sacked by Trump in a move that sent shockwaves across the capital and provoked widespread calls for an independent inquiry into allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump associates.
In his dismissal letter to Comey, Trump wrote: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” But the FBI’s refusal to hand over the documents implies that it believes Trump’s call on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails was at least relevant to their ongoing inquiries.
The then Republican presidential candidate ignited an instant uproar when he made his controversial comment at a press conference in Florida on 27 July. By that time Russia had already been accused by US officials of hacking Democratic National Committee emails in a bid to sway the election.
“I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, referring to a stash of emails that Clinton had deleted from her personal server dating from her time as US secretary of state.
Later that day the Republican candidate posted a similarly incendiary remark on Twitter: “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
The FBI’s refusal to disclose documents relating to Trump’s Russia hacking invitation was made in response to a freedom of information lawsuit lodged by Ryan Shapiro of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and the journalist Jason Leopold. They jointly submitted a Foia request last August requesting from the FBI “disclosure of any and all records, including investigative records, mentioning or referring to Donald Trump’s statement on 27 July 2016”.
The FBI initially declined either to confirm or deny the existence of any documents on this matter, but later reversed its position, effectively admitting that records relating to Trump’s provocative remark were in the agency’s possession.
A joint status report prepared by counsel for both the defendants and the plaintiffs in the freedom of information case, said: “Although initial searches began only as recently as the week of March 20, 2017, and definitive information is not yet available, the FBI expects that it possesses at least some records that are responsive to Plaintiff’s Russia Request and subject to Foia.”
Shapiro said: “The DoJ/FBI’s latest filing makes plain that Donald Trump’s campaign trail call for Russian hacking of Secretary Clinton’s emails is of investigative interest to the FBI.” He added: “In light of Trump’s sudden termination of Director Comey, this fact should significantly reinforce the widespread perception that the president of the United States is unabashedly seeking to cover up his and his associates’ crimes.”