Since the end of WW2, the US government has used the Espionage Act to prosecute government workers who shared classified information with journalists thirteen times. Nine (69%) of those prosecutions were under Obama. At least, this is true as of the time POTUS DJT took office.
How many do you think we’ll see under Trump?
Despite Obama’s record breaking marathon of prosecuting whistle-blowers and attacking the press, denying Freedom of Information Act requests, using the Espionage Act (a World War I law meant to prosecute spies of foreign nations) to prosecute American government officials leaking to the press, wiretaping journalists, denial of “reporter’s privilege,” issuing subpoenas and compelling testimony to force reporters to reveal their sources, all while claiming to be “the most transparent administration in history”… it appears that Trump may see this as a competition rather than an aberration of history like the Alien and Sedition acts.
Jeff Sessions at a recent news conference has indicated that the DOJ “has more than tripled the number of active leak investigations” since January (possibly in response to an unprecedentedly unprofessional staff at the White House). He assured the press pool, chillingly, that part of this process would involve “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.” He also announced the creation of a new team specifically tasked with investigating leaks to the press and to the public, and refused to rule out prosecuting journalists because it was a “hypothetical”.
Trump, for his part, has made a constant point of campaigning against the press and “fake news”. He openly speculated during the campaign that he would like to “open up” libel laws, wanted to look into “closing down the internet” in some way and warned that, in response to whatever the hell he meant by that, “somebody will say ‘oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech’. These are foolish people.” He has recently seemed increasingly frustrated at the sheer amount of leaks coming from players within the White House.
Trump’s first prosecution of a government employee leaking information to the press was announced by the Department of Justice two months ago today. The leaker, Reality Winner, gave classified documents to The Intercept. She was an employee of the Pluribus International Corporation, a company which contracted services to the NSA. Of course the documents she provided related to Russian attempts at interference in the U.S. election.
It’s true that one prosecution doesn’t exactly equal a trend. Anything we have to go on when predicting how Trump will treat leaks to the press is based on his words, and despite his assurances that…
“I know words. I have the best words.” – President Donald Trump
… they often seem to come out both sides of his mouth and contradict one another. Certainly, harsh words alone aren’t enough to ensure that any attacks on whistle-blowers or the press will come anywhere near approaching Obama or Nixon territory, nor are Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. If he does want to surpass Obama, he’s got some big shoes to fill.
In any case, as James Risen of the New York Times pointed out in December, if Trump and Sessions do target journalists, Obama laid the groundwork and “handed him a road map”.
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