Three Reasons to Reject Trump's Criticism of Intelligence Leaks

The self-proclaimed WikiLeaks lover is poorly positioned to complain about the release of information that disadvantages his administration.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

It’s a rare event when President Trump tweets approvingly of a journalist, but yesterday Eli Lake of Bloomberg View gained that unusual honor.

Pretty obviously, the president had not actually read the underlying column, which opens with a summary of Trump’s most egregious untruths, to build to the observation: “for a White House that has such a casual and opportunistic relationship with the truth, it’s strange that Flynn’s ‘lie’ to Pence would get him fired.”  (Trump also missed Lake’s early-off-the-blocks reporting on Russian responsibility for the DNC and DCCC hacks.  )

Yet Lake’s core point has been seized upon by those looking to distract from what Trump himself called “the Russia connection.” Following Donald Trump, the House Oversight Committee’s chairman, Jason Chaffetz, has insisted that it is the leaker, not the leaks, that merits investigation. That line has been adopted by the administration’s favored talkers in the media, led—naturally—by Sean Hannity.

These talkers argue that what we are seeing here is a slow-motion coup d’etat: lawless leaks by politicized intelligence officers aimed at destroying the elected president of the United States.

Here are three reasons to reject this claim:

1) When Russian spies hacked Democratic emails, and then posted those emails via WikiLeaks, the Trump campaign and its friends noisily insisted that it didn’t matter how information came into the public domain, but only whether the information told Americans something important about a would-be president.

“I love WikiLeaks!” said Donald Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania in October. A Republican congressman who had over-enthusiastically tweeted “Thank God for WikiLeaks” explained himself in a more formal statement: While he did not condone illegal activity, he was “thankful the information was out there.”  And this was the line certainly from Trump supporters on air and online: The real news was the content of the leak, not the fact of the leak.

Yet in the WikiLeaks instance, the content of the leak was a series of nothingburgers. Maybe the most exciting revelation was that Donna Brazile had shared with the Clinton campaign one of the questions to be posed to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at a CNN townhall during the Democratic primaries. Now, however, we are dealing with information of truly vital national importance: plausible allegations that a U.S. presidential campaign had contact with a hostile foreign power which had hacked the communications of its political opponents. If there was any coordination, the resulting scandal would blend Watergate with Alger Hiss. The people who “loved WikiLeaks” seem poorly positioned to complain that potentially vastly greater wrongdoing is being brought to light by the same methods they endorsed for their own advantage.

2) If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers.

What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public? Evidence that close associates of the current president of the United States had contacts with a hostile foreign-intelligence service is not a matter of purely historical interest. It’s not just a law-enforcement matter. The whistle blowers are blowing whistles, at immense professional and legal risk to themselves, because the people in charge of protecting the system against foreign spy penetration are themselves implicated in that penetration.

3) Eli Lake vividly characterized the fate of Michael Flynn as a “political assassination.” It might be more accurate to describe the current struggle as a duel. Well before the latest revelations, Team Trump has unmistakably signaled its intention to purge the intelligence services of people with knowledge of the president’s Russia connection.

In early January, multiple newspapers reported that the incoming administration planned radical reforms of the intelligence agencies. These reports agreed that the new administration wanted to reduce the role of the Director of National Intelligence, the central coordinator of all intelligence products. But instead of reverting to the pre-9/11 situation where the coordinating job was assumed by the CIA, that agency, too, would be downgraded. Its director was initially removed from the Principals Committee of the National Security Council: a bold declaration of reduced status.

Instead, the coordination would occur at the new and politicized NSC itself, where Steve Bannon would have a permanent seat but not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That would have placed the White House and the national security adviser, Mike Flynn, more directly in control of the agencies investigating … the White House and Flynn.

Maybe this was all undertaken for the highest and most disinterested public motives. And Flynn has now resigned; the CIA director has been restored to his seat at the table. But you can imagine that an investigator of the White House’s troubling Russia connections might have perceived a purge in the making. If information was not brought forth now, such an investigator might reasonably fear, that information would be silenced and secreted forever by people with a deep personal interest in silencing and secreting it.

What Americans should all be able to agree is that this duel is no way to conduct the national security of the United States. What’s needed is an independent investigation of all aspects of the Trump-Russia connection, headed by respected nonpartisan officials, equipped with the power to subpoena all relevant information, including the president’s tax returns. And it’s needed now.