President Trump criticized the intelligence community and the media Wednesday for the news reports that ultimately led to national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation Monday night, less than four weeks into his White House tenure.
“I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media — as I call it, the ‘fake media,’ in many cases — and I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly,” Trump said at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I think in addition to that, from intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked.”
Trump added that the leaks were a “criminal action, criminal act.”
Let’s break this down into two parts: Were the leaks beyond the pale? And does calling news reports “fake” help Trump get through this?
As to the first question, I spoke to multiple former intelligence and national security professionals. To a person, each said such information picked up from monitored calls would be classified, and in the normal course of an administration would not be leaked. One former senior intelligence official said, “Certainly not appropriate. Certainly with the investigation still ongoing.” Eric Edelman, former ambassador to Turkey, told me, “It is never good when intelligence sources and methods are revealed and there has been sensitivity to American citizens and U.S. government officials being caught in intercepts of conversations with foreign officials over the years.” He added, “Asking the intelligence community for the identities (never provided by name but by position) of American citizens was always pretty sensitive and Democrats made a big deal of [former ambassador to the United Nations] John Bolton having asked the intelligence community about this when he was up for confirmation.”
Nevertheless, Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution warned, “The assumption that these are intelligence community leaks is utterly unsupported by the evidence — and I suspect wrong.” In other words, others in the administration may well have been behind the leaks in an effort to move Flynn out of the administration.
Moreover, most agreed that as a rule leaks occurred when, as one expert put it, “the truth isn’t coming out.” The expert added, “It’s a form of checks and balances.” Yet another put it more colorfully. “It’s not that unusual in the sense that if you piss off the intelligence — which Flynn had also done at [the Defense Intelligence Agency] — you should watch your back,” he said. “Not really appropriate, however common.”
Trump’s tantrum, however, hardly helps him. For one thing, the “fake news” line is getting stale. Moreover, in this case, Trump forced out Flynn, confirming that he did, in fact, mislead members of the administration. Wittes noted, “And as to Trump’s claim that this is all fake news and made up, well, if that were right, why the heck did he fire the guy?” Likewise, Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, told me via email, “President Trump should respect the work of those in the independent media.” He added, “He can express a difference of opinion about articles in the media without denigrating the profession as a whole. And by the way, he seems to have believed the Washington Post story about Flynn.”
More fundamental, Trump’s old tactic of attacking the press no longer works with his own party. Low-information, loyal voters might be satisfied with that kind of bluster, but Republicans in the Senate no longer are. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) came forward, as others had, to make the case that “if there were contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign operatives that was inappropriate, then it would be time for the Congress to form a joint select commission to get to the bottom of all things Russia and Trump.” He added, “The bottom line here is we should have a joint select committee if there is any credibility to the accusation that campaign officials for Trump interacted with the Russians inappropriately.” Senate Democrats and Republicans are beginning to work cooperatively in an effort to get to the bottom of Trump’s Russia connections. Push will come to shove, nevertheless, when Democrats demand to see Trump’s tax returns or subpoena Trump aides. Republicans, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), are openly mulling the best course forward, including the possibility of an independent commission.
In short, Trump’s antics — like Kellyanne Conway’s spin — are no match for reality. “There is something bigger going on here given the background of Russian interference in U.S. elections which is on a larger scale than anything seen in the past,” Edelman told me. “In the end of the day, the Trumpkins can’t have it both ways. Did Flynn do something wrong or not? If he did, how would anyone have known absent the leaks since even [Vice President] Pence wasn’t told before The Post, Times, etc. published?”
Trump is kidding himself if he thinks this will all go away. To the contrary, until we know exactly what Flynn was doing and whether it was at Trump’s direction, his presidency will be seriously impaired.