During an interview with CBS's John Dickerson that aired Sunday, Priebus cited two recent stories that he described as “grossly inaccurate, overstated, overblown” and “total garbage.”
One is a New York Times report that says phone records and intercepted calls show Trump's aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. CNN also has published a similar story. The other is a Wall Street Journal article about U.S. intelligence officials withholding sensitive information from the president because of fears that it could be leaked. The stories relied on revelations by current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose classified information.
That's a problem, Priebus said.
“I think that we've gotten to a place, John, where the media is willing to run with unnamed sources, apparently false leaked documents,” the chief of staff said. “We deal with one after the next. I think the media should stop with this unnamed-source stuff. Put names on a piece of paper and print it. If people aren't willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn't be listed, period.”
Over the past several weeks, media outlets, including The Washington Post, have published damning stories that portray an administration in disarray, some of which have resulted in investigations. Many, if not all, cited anonymous sources.
One example is a recent Post report that revealed that former national security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with the country's ambassador before the inauguration and mischaracterized that conversation to Vice President Pence. Flynn resigned shortly after.
Priebus defended Flynn on “Face the Nation.”
“There's nothing wrong with having a conversation about sanctions, and there's nothing wrong with having conversations about the fact that the Obama administration put further sanctions in place and expelled some folks out of the United States,” he said. “There's nothing wrong with that topic coming up in a conversation.”
Whether Flynn didn't tell Pence the truth or whether he forgot the details of the conversation is “a totally separate issue,” Priebus said.
Trump has used the reliance on unnamed sources to attack the credibility of news organizations, dismissing their stories as “fake news” and “conspiracy theories.” In a tweet Friday, he called the media, specifically mentioning the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN, “the enemy of the American People.”
“And we're sitting here talking about it,” he said. “And it's a shame. And it needs to end.”
Dickerson then asked whether the administration's strategy in dealing with backlash from explosive stories is simply to blame the media.
“I mean, you're talking about people that you're not naming, and whether or not some things need to be improved, and what would you say to people that say some things. I mean, what things? What people? What are you referring to?” Priebus responded. “Give me a specific question with a specific purpose — accusation, and I'll answer the question.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a vocal Trump critic, defended the free press in an interview on NBC's “Meet the Press.” Suppressing the media, McCain said, is “how dictators get started.”
The Trump administration's aversion toward anonymous leaks to the media isn't new. As Dickerson pointed out, it was a “familiar complaint” from previous White House occupants. Trump also isn't the only president to wage a war against the media. And he isn't the first one to use the word “enemy” to describe the media.
“The press is your enemy,” President Richard Nixon said during a February 1971 meeting. “Enemies. Understand that? … Now, never act that way … give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you're trying to be helpful. But don't help the bastards. Ever. Because they're trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”
The differences are the recipients of the message and the circumstances in which the words were uttered.
Nixon was talking to one person: Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Trump was addressing the public — specifically, his more than 25 million Twitter followers.