Friday, August 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced, via his "beleaguered" attorney general, a crackdown on "leaks."

Eleven days after Trump--then still in the midst of actively trying to force Jefferson Sessions' resignation--called Sessions "VERY weak" on prosecuting leakers, the attorney general announced a new law enforcement focus on the matter. In particular, Sessions indicated that he would be less restrained in issuing subpoenas to journalists who receive leaks.

It is not in any way illegal for a journalist to publish leaked material--even classified information--but it is possible to try to force journalists to reveal their sources. (There is a long history of journalists preferring to go to jail for contempt of court rather than compromise their sources.) At the moment, Justice Department guidelines allow for journalists to be subpoenaed only under extraordinary circumstances. Sessions' remarks indicated that this would likely change.

Trump's agitation about leaks is understandable: they may already have shortened his time in office. The genealogy of the several investigation into Trump's ties to (or influence by) Russia can be traced to the brief tenure of Michael Flynn as his national security advisor. Flynn was hired by Trump in spite of warnings from within Trump's administration that he had lied about his contacts with Russian government officials, and had also lied on his disclosure forms about money he'd been paid by foreign governments. (Flynn has since invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and sought unsuccessfully to trade his testimony for immunity from prosecution.) It was only after those warnings, ignored by Trump at first, were leaked to the Washington Post that Flynn was forced out.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The First Amendment is more important than any given president's political well-being.
  • As a rule, people who risk their jobs or freedom to leak sensitive government information only do so when they believe it really matters that the public be informed.