THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump’s latest round of early morning tweets Thursday 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 have 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:
The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2017
Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2017
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 have 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 leaking 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.
* TRUMP WANTS REVIEW OF INTEL SERVICES: The New York Times reports that Trump will assign billionaire Stephen Feinberg to launch a review of our intelligence services. Many fear for their independence, including Trump’s pick for director of national intelligence, Dan Coats:
Mr. Coats is especially angry at what he sees as a move by [Stephen] Bannon and [Jared] Kushner to sideline him before he is even confirmed, according to current and former officials. He believes the review would impinge on a central part of his role as the director of national intelligence and fears that if Mr. Feinberg were working at the White House, he could quickly become a dominant voice on intelligence matters.
More infighting. And as the story notes, this appears to be about installing a “Trump loyalist” into the world of intelligence services.
* REPUBLICANS TO HUDDLE OVER OBAMACARE: The Associated Press reports that congressional Republicans will meet Thursday to try to jump-start their stalling strategy to repeal (and “replace”) the Affordable Care Act. This is interesting:
With Senate Republicans straining to coalesce around plans, Price met privately with GOP senators Wednesday, but participants said no specifics were discussed. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said lawmakers and the White House are trying to decide who should release a plan to replace Obama’s law first — the White House or Congress.
Asked to characterize those discussions, Wicker said: “You go first. No, you go first.”
Wait, what? You’d think finally getting to offer up the GOP replacement plan — after years of preparing for this glorious moment — would be a privilege, not something to fear.
* IS RUSSIA A DEALBREAKER FOR REPUBLICANS? David Drucker reports that, while Republicans are willing to let Trump slide on many issues, relations with Russia isn’t one of them:
Republicans have been urging Trump to get tough with Russia, which continues to provoke U.S. military assets and undermine American interests. … Some Republicans have openly chastised the president for excusing Putin’s thuggery. … They support further Congressional investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election that might implicate Trump.
It’s likely Republicans will continue criticizing Trump’s posture toward Russia. But will they really support an independent investigation that might damage the GOP president in a serious way?
* CONSERVATIVE TALK RADIO RALLIES AROUND TRUMP: The New York Times reports that many conservative talk radio hosts are sticking by Trump amid the resignation of Michael Flynn and other ongoing fiascos:
If his supporters on the right were beginning to doubt him, there was no sign of it on conservative talk radio, where Mr. Trump’s contention that he was a victim of leaks and entrenched Washington insiders lit up phone lines around the country. … The underlying thrust of the allegations — that Mr. Trump has liberal enemies who want to see him fail, and that they include the news media — appeared to strike a chord with talk radio listeners on Wednesday.
If this is so, it’s odd that Trump would empower the “fake media” and the intel community leakers who are out to get him by pushing Flynn out himself, isn’t it?
* REPORT FINDS EXPLOSION IN MUSLIM HATE GROUPS: NBC News reports:
In its annual census of hate groups and extremist organizations, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said the overall number of hate groups grew from 892 in 2015 to 917 in 2016.
But the number of anti-Muslim groups nearly tripled — from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year.
The SPLC said the tenor of the presidential campaign energized certain sectors of the hate movement.
This can’t possibly have had anything to do with Trump’s year of anti-Muslim bigotry.
* JEFF SESSIONS MUST RECUSE HIMSELF: E.J. Dionne has a great column arguing that Trump is fundamentally unfit to serve, with the Russia story being only one reason why. Note this:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the meantime, must immediately recuse himself from all decisions about all aspects of the Russia investigation by the FBI and the intelligence services. Sessions should step back not simply because he is an appointee of the president but, more importantly, because he was a central figure in the Trump campaign. He cannot possibly be a neutral arbiter, and his involvement would only heighten fears of a coverup.
No doubt Sessions is deeply concerned about maintaining public confidence in the investigation into contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign in which he played a key role.
* AND 9/11 VICTIMS’ FAMILIES PROTEST TRUMP EXECUTIVE ORDER: A New York affiliate of NBC reports that some families of 9/11 victims will protest Trump’s travel ban today:
The families … say the executive order … makes reference to the attacks to justify a ban on refugees and other people arriving from the Muslim-majority countries. “We will not tolerate President Trump’s use of 9/11 to defend his deplorable anti-American political agenda,” the families said in a statement. They said that it was an “outrage” that refugees who have been vetted and approved “now face grave danger and an uncertain future.”
Why do the 9/11 families oppose keeping America safe from terrorism?