Es­ca­la­tion, bigly

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - GREG SAR­GENT

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s lat­est round of early morn­ing tweets go well be­yond the usual blus­ter about his op­po­nents. He is now ba­si­cally call­ing for the use of the gov­ern­ment’s in­ves­tiga­tive ma­chin­ery to be turned loose on them.

Trump tweeted an­grily about the leak­ers who have dis­closed to the press that in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials de­ter­mined that there were con­tacts be­tween Rus­sia and Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials dur­ing the past year. Trump was also pre­sum­ably re­fer­ring to leak­ers who re­vealed that the Jus­tice Depart­ment warned that for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn com­mu­ni­cated in­ap­pro­pri­ately with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador, mak­ing him vul­ner­a­ble to black­mail. Trump tweeted:

The spot­light has fi­nally been put on the low- life leak­ers! They will be caught!

Leak­ing, and even il­le­gal clas­si­fied leak­ing, has been a big prob­lem in Wash­ing­ton for years. Fail­ing ny­times ( and oth­ers) must apol­o­gize!

As NBC’s “First Read” crew notes, th­ese com­plaints are a bit rich, given that Trump re­peat­edly ex­tolled Wik­iLeaks for pro­vid­ing po­lit­i­cal am­mu­ni­tion against Hil­lary Clin­ton dur­ing the cam­paign. First Read also points out that the rev­e­la­tions made pos­si­ble by the leaks are huge sto­ries. We’ve learned not only that there was con­tact be­tween Rus­sia and Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials but also that in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials con­cluded Rus­sia in­ter­fered in our elec­tion to help Trump. Th­ese sto­ries are big­ger than the leaks them­selves— yet Trump wants the fo­cus to be on the leak­ing in­stead.

But there’s still more to this: Note that Trump is now say­ing, in his first tweet above, that the leak­ers are go­ing to get caught. This sounds very much like a call for in­ves­ti­ga­tions de­signed to fer­ret them out.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ag­gres­sively in­ves­ti­gated and pros­e­cuted leak­ers and whistle­blow­ers, too. As Leonard Downie Jr. re­cently put it, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s war on leaks was “the most ag­gres­sive I’ve seen since the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion.” And as Glenn Green­wald ar­gues, there is an enor­mous amount of hypocrisy afoot in Wash­ing­ton around leak­ers— many de­cried it as a heinous crime when it hap­pened un­der Obama, yet are now cel­e­brat­ing it un­der Trump.

But it’s none­the­less im­por­tant to pin­point ex­actly what is note­wor­thy about what Trump is do­ing here. Trump is call­ing for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into seem­ingly il­le­gal leak­ing, but he’s do­ing more than this. He’s call­ing for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into leak­ers and whistle­blow­ers who are un­der­min­ing Trump him­self. Such in­ves­ti­ga­tions pre­sum­ably could lead to pros­e­cu­tions.

Matthew Miller, a for­mer Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman dur­ing the Obama years, ar­gues that there is a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween what the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion did and what Trump is now do­ing. He emailed: Though they are con­tro­ver­sial, there is a place for leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions into dis­clo­sures that harm na­tional se­cu­rity and serve no whistle­blow­ing pur­pose. But a pres­i­dent ask­ing for in­ves­ti­ga­tions into leaks that ex­pose il­le­gal or in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior by him or his staff is some­thing else en­tirely.

Even if one dis­agrees with Miller’s de­fense of leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions in se­lect sit­u­a­tions, the un­der­ly­ing dif­fer­ence here does ap­pear to be sig­nif­i­cant. Let’s put this an­other way: If Trump wants to prove that this fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence is not a mean­ing­ful one, he can. He can sim­ply ex­plain why the cur­rent round of leaks is a threat to the coun­try, as op­posed to merely a po­lit­i­cal threat to Trump him­self. And then we can judge whether he’s mak­ing a cred­i­ble ar­gu­ment. Per­haps the next per­son who gets to in­ter­view Trump might con­front him with this line of ques­tion­ing.

An­other big ques­tion here is how Trump’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions, will re­ceive the mes­sage Trump has sent. Does he take it as a sig­nal to launch in­ves­ti­ga­tions into leak­ers who have un­der­mined Trump po­lit­i­cally by re­veal­ing con­tacts be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign? How might Ses­sions jus­tify this, given the fact that he was a ma­jor fig­ure on the Trump cam­paign him­self? How does that all get squared with the fact that the FBI it­self is cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing those con­tacts?

All of this signals yet an­other way in which we are head­ing into very heavy weather un­der this pres­i­dent.

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