Donald Trump’s real war on the press has finally begun.
Ever since he began his campaign for president, Trump has engaged in a largely rhetorical battle against the press, casting the reporters who cover him as the enemy of the average American and as disseminators of what he calls “fake news.” But for the most part, Trump’s bark has been worse than his bite. Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump was not known to have spied on journalists or tried to jail them – as Obama did with me – for refusing to reveal their sources.
Now we know that the Justice Department secretly seized the phone and email records of Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter, in a leak investigation involving a former Senate staffer. It is the first time the Trump administration is known to have engaged in such an aggressive tactic against a reporter, and it is exactly the kind of press surveillance at which the Obama administration excelled. For years, conservatives attacked Obama for using such tactics to spy on reporters. Of course, there was no outcry from the right on Friday over Trump’s willingness to do the same thing.
To be sure, Trump has previously gone after the alleged sources of stories in the press, including former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner and FBI agent Terry Albury, both of whom have been accused of providing classified information to The Intercept. The Intercept does not comment on its sources. But the targeting of Watkins shows that the Trump administration is willing to attack the press directly.
One story that apparently caught the interest of the Trump administration as part of this draconian leak investigation concerned the Trump-Russia probe. Documents made public in the new leak case show that the government wanted to know how Watkins, then a reporter for BuzzFeed, found out last year that Russian intelligence tried to recruit Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who is a key figure in the Trump-Russia investigation.
The fact that a scoop about the Trump-Russia case apparently helped prompt a leak investigation by the Trump administration shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump and those around him have been obsessed with trying to stop the investigation ever since it began.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general and crony, has been forced to recuse himself from overseeing the probe, but there is no evidence that he has recused himself from overseeing leak investigations involving stories about the Trump-Russia case. That gives Sessions a way to try to control press coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Americans should stop and think about how Trump and Sessions can use such leak investigations as a backdoor way to block the Mueller inquiry. The press (notably the New York Times and the Washington Post) has played a central role in uncovering key aspects of the Trump-Russia case, and has kept the story alive when public and governmental interest has waned. This leak case seems designed to dissuade aggressive reporters like Watkins and others from continuing to dig into the Russia story. It represents an ominous message to reporters from the Trump White House and the Sessions Justice Department: If you keep reporting on Russia, we will punish you.
American journalists must fight back by continuing to investigate the Trump-Russia story and publishing what we find
Trump has tried to demonize the press and now has begun to use the Justice Department and the FBI to do his bidding by going after reporters. But Americans should realize that journalists are not the enemy of the people, as Trump claims. The press is one of the most important checks on Trump’s authoritarian impulses.