(Editor’s note: Language in paragraph 17 may be offensive to some readers.)
The Trump White House has moved at warp speed toward historic achievements. Sadly, these may include violations of the spirit and letter of the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
Trump tweeted this on Friday: “The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself…. FIND NOW.” When Trump hits Caps Lock, take heed.
Informed citizens know well that the FBI is conducting a counterintelligence investigation into links between Russian cyber-saboteurs and the 2016 Trump campaign. They’ve read first-rate reporting by the nation’s leading news organizations on the case.
The president evidently suspects that somewhere in a dark parking garage in the District of Columbia, the feds are ratting him out as reporters in fedoras furtively scribble shorthand notes. Maybe they’re using a state-of-the-art encrypted app instead, but more on that in a minute.
Trump wants this case to vanish – and who can blame him? The tweeter-in-chief calls it “A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT.” But if there’s a trail of evidence connecting the gilded chambers of Trump Tower and the chandeliered suites of the Kremlin, the FBI will follow it.
The president appears to be seeking to strong-arm the Bureau, scare White House staffers, silence Congress, stanch the leaks, and stop the press. Trump keeps attacking reporters as the “enemy of the people” – a pithy phrase last in vogue when Vladimir Lenin ran the Russian revolution a hundred years ago.
Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, talked to FBI director James Comey the other day. They weren’t reviewing security for the next Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. The subject at hand was the reporting on Vladimir Putin’s spies and Trump’s campaign – and the president’s rage against it.
Comey responded correctly, with stony silence. He certainly didn’t say Priebus had been “extremely careless,” though come to think of it, he could have.
The last time a White House chief of staff set out to impede an FBI investigation that threatened a president was a few days after the Watergate break-in in June 1972. H.R. Haldeman was acting on orders of Richard Nixon, caught on a reel-to-reel recording. They called it the smoking gun tape. Haldeman went to prison. Nixon went into exile.
I’m not a special prosecutor, and I can’t say it’s an obstruction of justice to pressure Comey and Congress on the gravest counterintelligence case of the 21st century (the federal statute on obstruction of justice covers “endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede” a federal investigation).
When a president picks a fight against the FBI and compares the CIA to Nazis, it’s in a way worse than a crime. It’s a blunder. This White House can’t keep making such mistakes. And as for escalating his battle against the press? Bad idea.
“I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” former President George W. Bush said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.” I know – I had to read it twice too.
The White House is attacking the media – and its sources inside the government – on many fronts. Last week, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, put his staff on notice that their calls will be monitored. He specifically warned them against using encrypted communications apps like Signal and Confide. Now Trump is eyeball-to-eyeball with his chief lawmen.
The last thing this White House wants to do is drive itself crazy chasing down leaks – especially when they involve a scintilla of evidence suggesting the abuse of power by a president. That is the road to hell in Washington. And we have travelled that road before.
Fifty-five days into his presidency, Nixon started sending great waves of B-52 bombers over Cambodia. The United States was not at war with Cambodia and the attacks were supposed to be a secret. They did not stay secret. Nixon summoned his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, into the Oval Office on April 25, 1969, and he ordered Kissinger to take responsibility for the leaks. Kissinger followed orders. With help from J. Edgar Hoover, he starting wiretapping members of his own National Security Council staff.
The targets of the taps grew to include 13 United States government officials at the NSC, the Pentagon, and the State Department, along with four newspaper reporters. They were not foreign spies. They were American citizens.
The White House received the wiretap transcripts – and they were useless, Nixon later said: nothing but “gossip and bullshitting.”
The National Security Agency had its own watch list in those days, which grew to include two United States senators. One was Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat who sponsored the first bipartisan legislation against the war in Indochina. The other was Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, who famously asked at the 1973 Watergate hearings: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
All this – and the Watergate burglary team, known as the Plumbers, because they were created to stop leaks – was in part a presidential war against the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, and of the press. Back then, the pen proved mightier than the presidential sword. Today? Well, we’ll see, won’t we?
Trump doesn’t take a lot of free advice. But the president should be counseled on this point. He should not interpose the power of his office between reporters and their sources in the executive and legislative branches of the government. He cannot go on the warpath against the FBI, Congress, and the press corps over leaks.
Those three forces are in constant opposition. But a free press can work in concert with federal investigators. If they align against the White House, a critical mass of shared information will gather. That information could someday take the shape of a subpoena seeking the traces of a smoking gun. And an FBI agent can serve that subpoena at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It happened in 1973. It could happen again.
(Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" and “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.”)