THE MORNING PLUM:
How far is President Trump willing to go in directing that the government’s investigative machinery be used to go after his opponents, real or perceived?
“I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks. Those are criminal leaks….It’s a criminal act.”
This came in response to questions about Trump’s tweets on Thursday morning, in which he lashed out at the media and at “low-life leakers” and vowed that the latter would be “caught.” The leakers were responsible for recent revelations that have rocked his administration politically. Among them: The news that our intelligence services have established contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign and that the Justice Department warned that former national security adviser Michael Flynn misrepresented his contacts with the Russian ambassador, making him vulnerable to blackmail.
Now Trump has called on the Justice Department to investigate those leakers. As Savage and Lichtblau put it:
No law forbids a president from making a criminal referral to the Justice Department, but it is unusual for a president to direct the agency to open a criminal investigation into his perceived opponents or to talk publicly about having done so. The White House, under presidents of both parties, has generally restricted direct contact with the Justice Department about prospective investigations to avoid the appearance of politicizing law enforcement.
Typically, if an agency believes that classified material from its own records was improperly disclosed, it will make a referral to the Justice Department, which decides whether to open an investigation.
That bolded part captures something more significant than its deftly understated tone first indicates: Trump is directing the Justice Department to investigate his “perceived opponents.” As I have argued, this is what distinguishes Trump’s vow to go after leakers from that of his predecessors, particularly the Obama administration, which did go after them very aggressively: Trump is going after leakers who harmed him politically. (The Times piece also details other ways in which the current context is different from the Obama years.)
Now, in fairness to Trump, at his presser he argued that such leaks harm our national security, suggesting that this is why they need to be targeted. He claimed to be worried about future leaking of sensitive information amid difficult situations involving North Korea or the Middle East.
But the leaks Trump is now decrying may have helped, rather than harmed, the national interest. We would not have known what we now know about the possible contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign without them. Given that congressional Republicans are mostly resisting any serious probe into Russian meddling in the election — and into any Russia-Trump campaign contacts — it is plausible that, if Republicans have their way, we will never know what really happened. More revelations make a full accounting more likely — and make it harder for Republicans to resist one — which we need to ensure this doesn’t happen again, strengthening our democracy.
Meanwhile, given that Trump knew for three weeks about the Justice Department’s warnings about Flynn and did nothing to remove him, it’s also plausible that he would still be national security adviser if leaks had not forced the issue.
Beyond all of this, the fact that Trump directed the Justice Department to target these leaks right after they damaged him politically — and the fact that he’s stating this publicly — raises questions about how far Trump will prove willing to go in this regard later. As Susan Hennessey of the Brookings Institution recently put it, Trump’s calls for investigations into leakers seem to signal “an intention to use the pretense of leak investigations to engage in political retaliation.” This appears plausible, given not just the timing but also Trump’s already-well-established authoritarian tendencies.
Finally, there’s the role of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in this mess. His Justice Department won’t say whether it’s heeding Trump’s call for leak probes. According to top Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, Sessions was deeply loyal to Trump’s agenda during the campaign. Trump’s presidency is threatened by politically damaging leaks. Trump is now openly calling on Sessions’ Justice Department to investigate those leaks. Meanwhile, the FBI itself — which is housed at the Justice Department — is investigating the contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, and Sessions was an early and important player in the Trump campaign. But Sessions has yet to recuse himself from that probe.
How does Sessions intend to handle all of these tangled threads? Sessions’s role needs more scrutiny. And so does the unusual nature of Trump’s call for this leak investigation.
* FLYNN MAY HAVE MISLED FBI ABOUT RUSSIA CONTACT: The Post scoops the latest in the ongoing travails consuming Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn:
Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies, current and former U.S. officials said. Flynn’s denial to the FBI was similar to what he had told Trump’s advisers, according to the officials.
It’s unclear whether Flynn would face prosecution over this, if true, but it ensures that the press will keep pulling on this thread.
* TRUMP ANGRY AT STAFF FOR FAILING TO CONVEY HIS GREATNESS: The New York Times reports that Trump wanted to face the media himself on Thursday because he was dissatisfied with how his staffers had portrayed his White House:
For days, a frustrated and simmering president fumed inside the West Wing residence about what aides said he saw as his staff’s inadequate defense and the ineffectiveness of his own tweets. Over the objections of some top advisers who wanted to steer him away from confrontation, Mr. Trump demanded to face the media, determined to reject the narrative that his administration is sinking into chaos, scandal and incompetence.
Does Trump ever take responsibility for anything?
* TRUMP’S LAVISH HABITS COSTING TAXPAYERS MILLIONS: The Post has a great piece tallying up the costs of the first family’s travel habits:
The unusually elaborate lifestyle of America’s new first family is straining the Secret Service and security officials…and costing far beyond what has been typical for past presidents — a price tag that, based on past assessments of presidential travel and security costs, could balloon into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a four-year term.
As The Post notes, Trump’s three trips to Mar-a-Lago so far may have cost $10 million. You cannot disentangle this from Trump’s use of his presidency to promote Mar-a-Lago, which sends additional cash into his own pockets.
* TRUMP FACES CRITICISM FOR PLAYING DOWN RIGHT-WING EXTREMISM: The Associated Press reports that critics are concerned that the Trump administration appears to be neglecting domestic terror threats:
A list of worldwide attacks recently released by Trump’s administration left off many that were carried out by right-wing extremists and white supremacists. And organizations that track terrorist and hate groups say the government focuses too narrowly on threats from the outside instead of adopting a broader approach.
It would be interesting to hear from career officials at the Department of Homeland Security about this.
* PENCE FACES A BIG TASK IN EUROPE: Vice President Pence is traveling to Europe this weekend, where his job will be to reassure allies of our continuing commitment to NATO, Bloomberg reports:
Pence will use an address to the Munich Security Conference on Saturday to vouch for Trump’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership and the need to confront a resurgent Russia, an administration official said…At the same time, he also will repeat demands that European allies contribute more to the alliance.
The news that our intelligence services believe Russia was in touch with Trump campaign officials during the campaign won’t make his job any easier.
* TRUMP FACING A ‘CRISIS OF LEGITIMACY': Paul Krugman takes stock of the latest turns in the Russia-Trump saga, and observes:
Trump is facing a clear crisis of legitimacy….even as the F.B.I. was creating the false appearance of scandal around his opponent, it was sitting on evidence suggesting alarmingly close relations between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia….How can a leader under such a cloud send American soldiers to die?…a thorough, nonpartisan, unrestricted investigation could conceivably clear the air. But Republicans in Congress, who have the power to make such an investigation happen, are dead set against it.
Of course they are. That would complicate the drive to cut taxes for the rich and decimate the regulatory state and safety net. Priorities!
* AND THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY, ALTERNATE-REALITIES EDITION: Good morning, Mr. President:
Thank you for all of the nice statements on the Press Conference yesterday. Rush Limbaugh said one of greatest ever. Fake media not happy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Fortunately, Trump still has some very loyal talk radio hosts out there who are willing to continue validating and propping up his preferred alternate reality.