The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump White House just inflicted a serious wound on itself

(Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)


President Trump just unleashed another fearsome fusillade of tweets, this time blasting the FBI directly for failing to control leaks.

“The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time,” Trump said. “They can’t even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S.” Trump closed with a demand that the leakers be caught: “FIND NOW.”

Trump’s rage is misdirected. Whatever culpability the FBI bears for its leaking, the better target for Trump’s anger right now is the White House itself. The news Trump was apparently responding to is a self-inflicted White House wound.

As CNN first reported, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus personally asked the FBI to publicly debunk recent media reports of contacts between Russia and Trump campaign aides during the campaign:

The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple U.S. officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.
But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate. White House officials had sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russia matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said…
The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.

The White House has explained this by offering an account that goes this way: FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe told Priebus at a recent meeting that the New York Times report on those contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign was “overblown.” Priebus then asked McCabe to assist in getting the real story out. After mulling the request, McCabe declined, the White House says, because “the FBI did not want to get in the business of calling balls and strikes on reporting.”

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By the way, we don’t know whether the FBI actually told Priebus that the Times story was overblown, or even whether the FBI actually concluded this in the first place. All we know is that Priebus says the FBI did these things.

But what is not in dispute is that the Trump White House asked the FBI to go public about an ongoing investigation in which the targets appear to be members of the Trump campaign. In particular, Priebus asked the FBI to go public with its supposed belief that the Times’s description of investigators’ determinations was overblown.

Trump was a big fan of Wikileaks – but he doesn't like leaks from his own administration (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

According to Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, that’s potentially a problem: “The White House is simply not permitted to pressure the FBI to make public statements about a pending investigation of the president and his advisers.” Or, as as NBC News’s First Read crew notes, it’s questionable that the White House is now “asking the FBI to publicly knock down a story.”

To be clear, this was a request from a top Trump adviser that the FBI publicly knock down a story about an ongoing investigation into conduct by Trump’s campaign. And after the FBI refused this request, Trump blasted the FBI on Twitter.

Former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller argued to Chris Hayes last night that Priebus should step down over his conduct, because it was “absolutely inappropriate” and “crosses every line.”

All of this provides those who want a full accounting of this whole affair with an opening — that is, to renew demands that the FBI testify as part of ongoing congressional probes into it. Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is already pushing for the committee’s probe (into potential contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, or even possible collusion between them) to solicit testimony from the FBI about what it has learned from its own inquiry. It’s unlikely that committee chair Devin Nunes (Calif.), the GOP congressman who controls this investigation, will go along with such a request.

But this latest turn in the saga invites a whole new round of questions about what the Trump White House privately asked the FBI to do in terms of going public about an ongoing probe into the Trump campaign’s conduct. Theoretically, this should make it harder for Republicans to continue to resist a full accounting, one that includes cooperation from the FBI.



“NBC News was told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that the NYT story WAS wrong — in its use of the term ‘Russian intelligence officials.’ Our sources say there were contacts with Russians, but that the US hasn’t confirmed they work for spy agencies. We were also told CNN’s description of Trump aides being in ‘constant touch’ with Russians was overstated. However, our sources did tell us that intelligence intercepts picked up contacts among Trump aides and Russians during the campaign.”

If this is correct, then the FBI has not even concluded what the White House is suggesting it did — i.e., that there weren’t contacts. Instead, the errors centered on a failure to confirm whether the contacts were with Russian intelligence or that those contacts were constant.

* SUPPORT FOR OBAMACARE RISES: A new Pew poll finds that 54 percent of Americans now approve of the Affordable Care Act. Virtually all Republicans disapprove. But:

Republicans who disapprove of the health care law are divided on whether GOP congressional leaders should modify the health care law or get rid of it entirely. Nearly equal shares say Republican leaders in Congress should focus their efforts on modifying the law (42%) and focus on getting rid of it entirely (44%).

Even 42 percent of Republicans say they want the law changed, rather than repealed entirely. Of course, once GOP leaders roll out their terrific replacement, everybody will love it.

* CANCER PATIENTS TERRIFIED OF OBAMACARE REPEAL: The Post’s Laurie McGinley has a nicely reported piece in which cancer patients describe their deep fears of seeing the health law repealed:

“People are scared out of their minds,” said 34-year-old Erin Price Schabert, who seven years ago was treated for breast cancer…many people described a kind of existential dread that matches their fear of cancer. Some worry that the law’s likely dismantling may put the latest oncology treatments, which can run $10,000 a month, out of reach. Others point to research showing that insurance status affects cancer patients’ survival.

As one melanoma survivor puts it, without the ACA, “I would likely be dead, and my family would likely be bankrupt from trying to save me.”

* AMERICANS SPLIT ON NAFTA: A new Gallup poll finds that 48 percent of Americans say NAFTA has been good for the United States, while 46 percent say the trade deal has been bad. Note the shift in Republican sentiment:

Perhaps because of Trump’s criticisms of NAFTA, fewer Republicans now than in the past say the agreement has been good for the U.S. Twenty-two percent of Republicans now hold this view, down from 40% in 2004 and 46% in 2000.

Meanwhile, Democratic support has risen. Whatever we think of NAFTA, it seems unlikely that there is a widespread clamoring for Trump to replace it with … whatever he would replace it with.

* TRUMP PRODS MANUFACTURING EXECS TO BRING JOBS BACK: The New York Times reports that Trump is pushing manufacturing executives to tell him how to bring jobs back to the United States, and comments:

Many of the … industrial firms Mr. Trump would like to see increase hiring in the United States are under intense pressure from Wall Street, especially activist investors and hedge funds, to generate faster earnings growth. That has forced companies … to embrace cost cuts, and to move production from the United States to cheaper locations like Mexico, although profit margins are high.

Trump’s preferred solution to this appears to be slashed taxes and regulations. If that doesn’t work, he can just hype the heck out of a handful of “saved” jobs here and there.

* WHY REPUBLICANS HATE OBAMACARE: Paul Ryan says Obamacare takes away our “freedom.” Paul Krugman explains the basics of how the ACA really works, and says:

Health reform has been a hugely liberating experience for millions. It means that workers don’t have to fear that quitting a job with a large company will mean loss of health coverage…It means that those 20 million people who gained coverage don’t have to fear financial ruin if they get sick…[Republicans] hate Obamacare for two reasons: It demonstrates that the government can make people’s lives better, and it’s paid for in large part with taxes on the wealthy.

Also, it has the word “Obama” in it.

* CNN MAY SKIP WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS’ ASSOCIATION DINNER: BuzzFeed reports that internal discussions are underway at CNN over whether to skip the dinner this year, after Trump has repeatedly blasted the network as “fake news”:

The chummy dinner has long been criticized as a bizarre spectacle of media and government coziness. Given President Trump’s aggressive, ongoing battle with the media, some in the press are wondering whether glad-handing with the administration this year is especially inappropriate.

Yeah, maybe the fact that Trump has called the media “enemies of the American People” should dissuade them from “glad-handing” with his administration.