Spicer made the White House request sound like the most natural thing in the world. But the FBI refused and, when it did, the Trump administration sought pushback against the news report from other senior members of the intelligence community and Congress, The Washington Post reported Friday.
Post reporters Greg Miller and Adam Entous explained one reason that the White House's recruitment effort could be problematic. “The decision to involve those officials could be perceived as threatening the independence of U.S. spy agencies that are supposed to remain insulated from partisan issues,” they wrote.
Very true. However, there is a second potential problem that has been mostly overlooked but that Spicer alluded to in Monday's news briefing.
Spicer recounted an exchange last week between Priebus and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who, according to Spicer, called the Times report “BS.” Priebus responded by asking McCabe to “let other people know that the story is not accurate,” Spicer said.
“Throughout the day, they went back and forth to see what they thought was appropriate,” he added. “Finally came to the conclusion that they did not want to get in the process of knocking down every story that they had issues with.”
Bingo. The FBI's unwillingness to aid the Trump White House's fight with the media is about precedent. Even if we accept that the FBI did find fault in the Times's report, as Spicer claims, why would the agency want to set an expectation that it will come out against every story to which it objects?
Had the FBI countered the Times's report last week, its silence on future stories could have been viewed as tacit confirmations of their accuracy. It is hard to see how refereeing every story would be in the FBI's short-term or long-term interest.
The White House ought to understand the FBI's calculus. Already, the president has paid a price for setting bad precedents. Trump's Twitter habit has created an expectation that he will speak out about everything, so when he tweets about a failed attack attempted by a Muslim in Paris but does not tweet about an attack on a Canadian mosque that killed six people, he invites reporters' questions as to why not.
Spicer grew agitated at such questions during a news briefing earlier this month, but it was Trump who put the White House in the position of having to explain, as Kellyanne Conway tried to on CNN, that the president “doesn't tweet about everything.”
The FBI is taking a more disciplined approach, for now. But if it ultimately caves under pressure from the White House, the agency could face uncomfortable questions of its own in the future.