Last week, anonymous U.S. officials told the New York Times that Trump campaign aides contacted Russian intelligence operatives, multiple times, during the 2016 race.
The news came right after other anonymous officials chased Michael Flynn out of the White House — by revealing that he had lied to the vice-president about his own illicit contact with the Russian government.
Days later, President Trump expressed far more concern about the candidness of these leakers than about the duplicity of his national security adviser.
“Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation,” Trump said at press conference last Thursday. “He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong – what he did in terms of the information he saw. What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally. That’s the real problem.”
Disclosing classified information is such a grave misdeed, it renders a national security adviser’s (apparent) violation of the Logan Act and lies to the vice-president irrelevant by comparison.
Just before the president made this argument, his administration tried to convince the FBI to disclose classified information.
The day after the Times reported on the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had a conversation. Which one of these men brought up the Times story is unclear — according to the White House, McCabe told Priebus that the paper’s report was overblown. However the subject came up, Priebus eventually asked McCabe to tell the press that the Times story was baloney — or, at least, have that information leaked, anonymously.
This request was problematic for at least two reasons. For one, Justice Department rules forbid the White House from discussing the details of ongoing investigations with the FBI — let alone investigations into the president himself — unless those details are “vital” to the president’s duties. For another, the FBI is not supposed to publicly comment on ongoing investigations.
The FBI refused Priebus’s request. And anonymous U.S. officials told CNN all about it.
The White House objected to some of the word choices in CNN’s story, but it did not deny the substance of the network’s report.
“We didn’t try to ‘knock the story down,’” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told CNN late Thursday night. “We asked them to tell the truth.”
Hours after his administration admitted that it had (seemingly illegally) asked the FBI to leak classified information, the president condemned the FBI for leaking information.
Perhaps Priebus’s request was actually a sting operation, designed to root out the least scrupulous members of the FBI. Or maybe the president is less outraged by leaks than by his inability to dictate exactly what information reaches “the enemy of the American people.”