Donald Trump has nothing in common with Reality Winner. He also has nothing in common with Terry Albury or Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards.
Winner, Albury, and Edwards each performed a public service by leaking to the press while Trump was president. All three were later prosecuted by the Trump administration and went to prison for telling the truth to the American people.
But don’t confuse Trump’s actions in his classified documents case with what they did. He’s accused of stealing classified information and lying about it, apparently for his own selfish reasons. Public service was never on his mind when he ordered that boxes filled with classified documents be moved around Mar-a-Lago to hide them from the FBI.
After Trump was indicted last week, there were plenty of facile comparisons in the media between his case and those of others like Winner who have been targeted in leak prosecutions. But Winner, Albury, and Edwards were whistleblowers, not narcissists who wanted to hoard government secrets as if they were rare gold coins.
In 2017, Winner was working for a contractor for the National Security Agency when she anonymously mailed an NSA document to The Intercept. The document revealed that Russian intelligence had attempted to hack into U.S. voting systems during the 2016 election; The Intercept published an explosive story based on the document that Winner had provided. The disclosure was so important that a Senate Intelligence Committee report later concluded that the press played a critical role in warning state elections officials about the Russian attempts to hack voting systems. Before the leak to The Intercept, federal officials had done next to nothing to alert state officials to the Russian threat. The Senate report offered powerful evidence that Winner had performed a public service by providing the NSA document to The Intercept.
Albury was an FBI agent who leaked secret FBI guidelines to The Intercept that served as the basis for a series of stories in 2017 revealing that the FBI could bypass its own rules in order to send undercover agents or informants into political and religious organizations, as well as schools, clubs, and businesses. Albury was motivated to disclose the information after he saw that the FBI’s investigative directives led to the profiling and intimidation of minority communities in Minnesota, where he was serving with the FBI, as well as elsewhere around the nation. Members of Minneapolis’s large Somali community later expressed gratitude to Albury for exposing the rules that gave the green light to their harassment.
Edwards was a Treasury Department official who provided confidential documents to BuzzFeed News that revealed widespread money laundering in major Western banks. Before she was arrested in 2018, she provided thousands of “suspicious activity reports” that showed how financial institutions facilitate the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins.
Despite the importance of the information all three revealed, Winner, Albury, and Edwards all went to prison during Trump’s presidency. That’s because there is no exception for public service in the laws concerning the mishandling, unauthorized retention, or the public disclosure of classified information. Under U.S. law, it doesn’t matter why someone disclosed classified documents. Motive makes no difference, even if the disclosures served the public good.
As a result, Winner, Albury, and Edwards were not able to argue in court that they shouldn’t go to prison for the crime of telling the truth. That’s one of the many reasons that becoming a whistleblower is such an act of courage. A whistleblower has to be willing to tell the truth to the American people while knowing that there will be no reward, only punishment.
Trump loved sending whistleblowers like Winner, Albury, and Edwards to prison and didn’t care that they had revealed important information that Americans had a right to know. Trump and his administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other president except the Obama administration. But Barack Obama had eight years in office to target whistleblowers, and Trump only had four. Who knows how many more leak prosecutions Trump will conduct if he gets back in the White House, but there is an excellent chance he will beat Obama’s record.
The stunning fact is that after gleefully sending so many whistleblowers to prison, Trump then stole classified documents on his way out of office and lied about it and hid them when the National Archives asked for them back. He kept hiding them from the Justice Department and the FBI once the matter turned into a criminal case. Trump simply didn’t think that the laws that he had applied so aggressively to others would apply to him.
And so the great irony is the Espionage Act — the archaic and draconian law Trump used to target whistleblowers like Winner who provided classified information to the press — is now being used to target Trump himself. In recent years, press freedom organizations have called for either the reform or outright repeal of the Espionage Act, both because it comes with excessive penalties and provides for no opportunity for whistleblowers to argue that their disclosures are in the public interest. Reforming the law to allow for a public interest exception would help future whistleblowers who follow in the footsteps of Winner, Albury, and Edwards.
Yet that change would do nothing for Trump. He’s just a selfish thief.