Schadenfreude due to the leaks about Trump’s Russian connections is, sadly, premature.
Over the course of the last week numerous anonymous leaks, some coming from the intelligence agencies, have kept the media’s attention on Trump’s connection to Russia. While Trump and his key advisors have railed against these leaks, it is not hard to figure out why they have become so numerous. A month ago, prior the inauguration, Politico’s Jack Shafer predicted: “The intelligence establishment, which Trump has deprecated over the issue of Russian hacking, owes him no favors and less respect. It will be in their institutional interest to leak damaging material on Trump.” And The Wall Street Journal reported on 15 February, that intelligence officials have also been withholding sensitive intelligence from Trump “because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised”.
But it is not just the intelligence agencies. The leakiness of the White House itself has become big news too. The Washington Post speculated on the motivations for these other leaks (more on this below). That the content of the leaks – particularly the possible connections between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government – are potentially explosive, but the optimism expressed earlier this week after the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn that the press might finally be able to hold Trump administration to account is, I fear, a bit premature. Trump has been damaged by the leaks, but when Trump is under attack he lashes out. This was the pattern on the campaign trail, but now as President he has immensely more power. He will try to wield that power against the leakers themselves, by targeting the US intelligence community (on Twitter on 15 February he referred to them as “Very un-American”), and minimize the impact of the leaks by continuing his campaign to delegitimize the mainstream press.
With regards to the leaks, the White House clearly struggled in their messaging on the Russia story and have even effectively conceded that the basic facts being reported as true, but over the last couple of days, Trump, Republicans in Congress, and the conservative media generally have launched a counter-offensive. The damaging details of the Trump campaign’s regular contacts with Russian intelligence is being dismissed as not newsworthy, replaced by the narrative that the intelligence community is working against the interests of national security by illegally leaking to the press. The far right press has gone further and claims an anti-Trump conspiracy is at work.
Then there was yesterday’s (16 February 2017) press conference. Trump “ranted and raved” about the dishonesty of the mainstream media, and took (some) questions over nearly 90 minutes (spending less than 5 minutes on the ostensible purpose of the press conference, the announcement of his new nominee for secretary of Labor). He then claimed that he was not ranting or raving, but that the press would claim that he had – as it dutifully did. You can see some of the low-lights of Trump’s answers to questions in the lists compiled by Vox and Rolling Stone.
Trump seems to believe he is at his best when he has a clear opponent whom he can blame for the dystopian vision of America that he holds; during the election Hilary Clinton, the Washington Establishment and the mainstream media made excellent internal foils for his policy ideas (along with the external threats of undocumented immigrants and radical Islam). Having won the election and now installed in the White House, two of those three internal foils are no longer as readily available to Trump (even though he continues to try bring up the election and Clinton at every opportunity). The mainstream media, however, by just doing its job is still available, and given the improprieties of his administration that the press, via leaks, are turning up, it has become a target of utmost importance for Trump and its advisors.
It was thus no accident that Trump used an event designed to take questions from the media to attack the media. He didn’t need this event to send out his message to his base: he does that constantly through prepared statements, friendly interviews on Fox, and through his tweets. But the press conference gave Trump an opportunity to scapegoat the press for all the problems of the first month of his administration in the most direct way possible.
In addition to worrying sabre-rattling against Iran, it started with the following statement (again, remember this was an event supposedly announcing a cabinet nomination): “Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that we deserve. … Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, DC, along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.” Note it is the media of the liberal coasts that are the problem, not those in the conservative heartland. But then, to make his point, he took questions from those same media outlets that he sees as so hostile (sometimes with a joke about how “terrible” the particular media outlet was). The purpose of doing so was to elevate the media into the prime opponent to himself and his administration: that only he could fight back against the corruption that the press supposedly represented. That he even targeted the British BBC with negative comments suggests there is no particular rhyme or reason to his claims of partisanship. In reality, all the press that asks “hard” questions (that is, asking critical questions) are bad – or in Trumpese, “failing” and “SAD”.
Asked by one reporter how he could call leaks of accurate information fake news, he responded: “The leaks are real; you’re the one that wrote about them and reported them. The leaks are absolutely real. ... The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” He continued his approach of gaslighting by claiming that what is obvious to any observer is just not true: “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos, chaos,” he said. “Yet it’s the exact opposite. The administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
Trump’s performance at this press conference was compatible with his performances on the campaign trail: a mixture of aggressive put downs of the media, bragging about himself, outright lies, and simplistic, even trivial explanations of his aims and priorities. It didn’t play well for the mainstream press, nor probably to most of the American public, but it will have worked, just liked his campaign stops did, among his core supporters. As he noted:
“I won with news conferences and probably speeches. I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people. That’s for sure. But I’m having a good time.
Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I'm not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But -- but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.”
When it came to the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump merely evaded the issue. He suggested that even though he didn’t ask Flynn to talk about sanctions with Russia, he wasn’t bothered by the fact that he had done so. But Flynn “didn’t tell our vice president properly and then he said he didn’t remember, so either way it wasn’t very satisfactory to me.” What Trump didn’t say is that the leaks demonstrate he had known about Flynn’s misleading of the vice president in mid-January, and yet he did not fire Flynn until the leaks this past week. When pressed on other reports that indicated that his top advisors had had contact with Russian intelligence prior to the election, Trump simply waived the claim away with the charge that the report came for the “failing New York Times”. “Speaking for myself,” he claimed, “I know nothing in Russia, I have no loans in Russia, I don’t have any deals in Russia.” He insisted again, “I had nothing to do with it! I have nothing to do with Russia, I told you!” He added: “Russia is fake news.” The “real news” was the leaking of information from “confidential investigations.” Again, Trump and his handlers are consciously trying to spin the story about the leaks into a scandal about the press, not about his administration.
On the other hand, Trump has signaled that he will use the leaks as an excuse to crack down on an intelligence community that he has long perceived as his enemy. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Flynn. And he then re-raised again the possibility of putting a crony into a watchdog position over the intelligence agency. As The New York Times reported:
President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire [Stephen Feinberg] to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview....
Reports that Mr. Feinberg was even under consideration to run the clandestine services shook the intelligence community, raising the prospect of direct White House control over America’s spies at the exact moment that Mr. Trump’s ties to Mr. Putin are under investigation by the F.B.I. and congressional committees. The fact that the head of the Justice Department (which overseas the F.B.I) is Jeff Sessions, a prime Trump supporter, also has chilling implications.
Feinberg has absolutely no national security experience. He has close ties to Stephen Bannon. As the New York Times reported: “Bringing Mr. Feinberg into the administration to conduct the review is seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into a world the White House views with suspicion. But top intelligence officials fear that Mr. Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.”
His potential appointment is also notable because many of the damaging leaks are not coming from the intelligence community at all, but from the White House itself. But that fact is largely irrelevant if you’re looking for a scapegoat, and a way to shift the conversation away from a damaging story suggesting collusion with a foreign government.
It seems likely that Trump will try to move to stop whistleblowing leaks: we can only hope that the general ineptitude of the administration so far will mean that their efforts will be less than effective. But we should also worry that Trump’s advisors will start deliberate leaks of their own. Whereas prior administrations routinely used leaks to disclose accurate, though classified, information for political or strategic gains, it seems likely that the Trump administration will use leaks to sow chaos and undermine the leaks of accurate information by planting lies. As this administration is clearly willing to lie, the administration might well exploit leaks to further obscure the truth.
So while Flynn’s departure and Trump’s train wreck of a news conference might seem like hopeful signs of a turn towards accountability, I think we should expect to see the Trump White House stepping-up the campaigns of blatant lying, ad hominem attacks, and aggressive efforts to delegitimize the very institutions that make-up America’s system of checks and balances. Hopefully, those institutions (the Judiciary, Congress, and the Press) will not buckle and allow this White House’s behaviour to become normalized