How Donald Trump lost his love for leaks

US president is not the first to turn against whistleblowers on assuming office

US president Donald Trump at an election campaign rally in 2016. As a candidate for the White House he declared: “I love Wikileaks!” In a tweet on Thursday he said “low-life leakers” would be caught. Photograph: John Gurzinkski/AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump at an election campaign rally in 2016. As a candidate for the White House he declared: “I love Wikileaks!” In a tweet on Thursday he said “low-life leakers” would be caught. Photograph: John Gurzinkski/AFP/Getty Images

 

As a candidate for US president, Donald Trump embraced the hackers who had leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails to the press, declaring at a rally in Pennsylvania, “I love WikiLeaks!”

To the cheering throngs that night, Trump marvelled that “nothing is secret today when you talk about the internet”. The leakers, he said, had performed a public service by revealing what he called a scandal with no rival in US history.

Now, after less than four weeks in the Oval Office, Trump has changed his mind. At a news conference on Wednesday and in a series of Twitter postings earlier in the day, Trump angrily accused intelligence agencies of illegally leaking information about Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, who resigned after reports that he had lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador.

“It’s a criminal action, criminal act,” Trump fumed at the White House. In a Twitter message, he asserted that “the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”

In a further tweet on Thursday morning, the president declared: “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!”

But this is Washington, where leaks are common currency – and, depending what side you’re on, either sinister or patriotic. Democrats these days see the proliferation of leaks about the Trump administration as the acts of public servants revealing the misdeeds of a presidency. Republicans see them as the reckless actions of disgruntled bureaucrats eager to advance their own agendas and sabotage Trump.

Either way, Trump’s presidential flip-flop follows a landmark month for Washington leaks. Drafts of his executive orders floated around the city for days before he signed them. Parts of the president’s conversations with foreign leaders have been published verbatim in news accounts. Agency memos and cables have been repeatedly cited by journalists to document anxiety among the city’s civil servants.

And an endless stream of articles about the connections between Trump advisers and Russia have been generated by leaks from intelligence and law enforcement sources. There are so many, in fact, that in one article about Flynn, the Washington Post cited an unusually large number of sources, beyond the customary two: “Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.”

First scandal

Laura Handman, a lawyer who represents news organisations on First Amendment issues, said of Trump, “He will not be the first president who has decried leaks once they become president.”

“That does seem to be pretty much a constant in the Oval Office,” she said. “It’s definitely true that he embraced them when the shoe was on the other foot.”

Over the last several days, leaks about Flynn and the broader issue of communications with Russia have created the president’s first major scandal, forcing Flynn to step down and leading to calls on Capitol Hill for investigations.

But Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that too little attention had been paid to how the information about Flynn was made public in the first place. “It was through a leak of classified information through the Department of Justice and presumably the intel community,” Spicer said. “Those are the only ones that have access to that information.”

“The idea that there’s been zero attention paid to an issue of that sensitivity should be concerning and alarming,” he said.

Trump’s Republican allies followed up on Spicer’s lead by demanding to know who in the government has been leaking to the news media. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News that his committee would be “asking the FBI to do an assessment of this to tell us what’s going on here, because we cannot continue to have these leaks as a government”.

Other Republicans have been circumspect about whether they intend to support investigations into the Russian connections. Some, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, support an inquiry by the intelligence committees. But McConnell has rejected the need for a select committee to investigate the issue.

“We know how to do our work,” McConnell said on MSNBC. “We have an intelligence committee.”

In Trump’s remarks at the White House, the president appeared to press for an inquiry on how information about Flynn’s communications with the Russians became known publicly.

“It’s been going on for a long time before me, but now it’s really going on,” Trump said of the leaks, accusing those who spread the information of “trying to cover up” for Clinton’s loss in the election last year. Trump added that there were “documents and papers that were illegally – I stress that, illegally leaked.”

If Republicans succeed in guiding those committees to focus more on leaks – rather than on the underlying information they reveal – they will be following a well-worn path.

Anonymous sources

Barack Obama, a Democrat, waged a furious war against leaks during his eight years in office, prosecuting more whistleblowers than all of his predecessors combined. Joel Kurtzberg, a partner at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel in Washington who specialises in First Amendment cases, said Obama’s actions had served to discourage public officials from disclosing information that revealed wrongdoing or was embarrassing to the administration.

“I would be concerned that, this early on, there is a public call to start a leak investigation, and really chill the divulgence of newsworthy information,” Kurtzberg said. “It is a very important thing for the press to be able to report on truthful information.”

Journalists who work in Washington are often criticised for their use of anonymous sources and for publishing information that is sensitive or classified. That criticism often comes from those in power – which now includes Trump and his aides.

“It’s been the case in Republican and Democratic administrations that presidents have not liked it,” said Leonard Downie Jr, a former Washington Post executive editor who is now a journalism professor at Arizona State University.

Downie said he had been surprised by the volume of information leaked to reporters in just the first three weeks of Trump’s presidency, apparently from people inside the government that Trump now leads. “I would be concerned if this administration followed suit and began to try to punish people” who are responsible for leaking that information or publishing it, Downie said.

For his part, the president appeared eager to do just that. In his Twitter messages, Trump railed against the “fake news media”, which he accused of engaging in conspiracy theories and “blind hatred”, apparently directed against him or his aides.

“Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?),” Trump wrote in one post. “Just like Russia.”

New York Times

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