President Donald Trump’s call to action has been heard: Attorney General Jeff Sessions is “taking a stand” against leakers and “reviewing” policies against subpoenaing reporters to force them to reveal their sources or potentially face jail time, he announced Friday.
“I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it,” Sessions said at a press conference, alongside Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. The announcement came a day after the Washington Post published leaked transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders.
It’s not yet clear how big Sessions’s stand against leakers will be. He did not specify any new investigations or outline any revised policies, but he said four people have already been charged under the Trump administration for leaking classified information. Neither Coats nor Sessions took any questions from reporters. Vox has reached out to the DOJ for further comment.
Trump has grown increasingly angered by the slew of leaked reports that have marked almost every week of his presidency and has chided Sessions for not being more proactive in investigating possible leakers.
The real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE and LEAKING! Find the leakers.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2017
“I’m very disappointed in the fact that the Justice Department has not gone after the leakers. And they’re the ones that have the great power to go after the leakers, you understand … and I’m very disappointed in Jeff Sessions,” Trump said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.
In the first six months of the Trump presidency, the DOJ has received as many referrals over leaks as they had in the past three years combined. This “culture” of leaking, as Sessions put it, has kept Trump’s White House mired in scandal for months.
And largely because of President Barack Obama’s own crackdown on leakers, as well as an increase in what information is considered classified since the 9/11 attacks, Trump’s administration has precedent to do something about it.
Trump has more precedent to crack down on leakers than ever before
Presidents have always struggled with leaks in their administration.
“We’ve historically had a monotonous routine of these epicycles of handwringing, blame, and then return to normal,” David Pozen, a Columbia law professor, told Politico. “Every time we’ve gotten a new administration they come in and get upset anew about the inability to control every disclosure. Then they learn there’s not much they can do about it at a reasonable cost, and they learn to play the game.”
President Obama was more aggressive than many of his predecessors in fighting leaks and whistleblowers, including subpoenaing reporters to force them to reveal their confidential sources — an approach that many have labeled a war on the press.
James Risen, the New York Times reporter who uncovered a National Security Agency secret surveillance program and who was investigated under the Bush administration and prosecuted under Obama’s, wrote in November that if “Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”:
Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.
And as many have warned, setting this kind of precedent to vigorously go after leakers often becomes a freedom of press problem, not only limiting more information available to the public but also resulting in investigations of journalists.
“A war against leaks almost invariably becomes a war against the press, since journalists make the leaks public,” Vox contributor Nicole Hemmer wrote for US News.
Trump has no qualms with threatening press freedom. He regularly calls media reports “fake news” if he does not like the tone or substance of the coverage, has attempted to restrict media access to his administration, and, on the campaign trail, sued and banned outlets for unfavorable stories.
In the runup to the election Trump threatened to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Sessions and Coats didn’t offer any additional clarity on how they would move forward on their leaker crackdown, but Trump has made it publicly clear that he would give the green light for prosecution.