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.