Trump Administration Threatens Freedom of the Press in New Leaks Crackdown

Jeff Sessions
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on July 20. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

Satirists have repeatedly drawn on the similarities between President Donald Trump and Middle Eastern and African dictators, for installing his family in senior advisory positions in the White House as much as for his excessive self-regard and his respect for military tough men. Now critics can tick off another point on the autocrat checklist following Attorney General Jeff Sessions's announcement on Friday that a new crackdown on leakers will include a Justice Department (DOJ) review of policies governing how the department deals with media outlets that publish leaked information.

Sessions and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats announced at a press conference that more DOJ and FBI resources would be directed towards pursuing leakers, particularly those who pass information on to the press and foreign officials.

The moves comes after a wave of leaks hit the White House, exposing, among other things, contact between Trump officials and Russian government officials, with alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia the subject of multiple investigations.

Trump allies accused a "deep state" of security officials of orchestrating the leaks in a bid to unseat the president. Trump has railed against leakers, and placed Sessions under pressure to prosecute more of those who disclose classified information. He has also attacked what he has called the "fake news" media for publishing "illegal leaks."

In an escalation of the administration's campaign against what it claims are hostile branches of the media, Sessions announced that part of the focus of the new anti-leakers crackdown would be the press.

Sessions said Friday the administration had tripled the number of illegal leaks cases over the previous administration, and said that after meeting intelligence officials, the DOJ would review its policies affecting media subpoenas.

"We respect the important role the press plays and we'll give them respect, but it's not unlimited," Sessions said. "They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press' role with protecting our national security and the lives of those who serve in the intelligence community, the Armed Forces and all law-abiding Americans."

The statement did not spell out which aspects of its policies are under review, but currently the DOJ will only compel journalists to disclose confidential sources as a last resort.

He added that the FBI would create a new counterintelligence unit to manage the cases.

It is not the only way the Trump has threatened to muzzle the press, pledging on the campaign trail to open up libel laws to make it easier to sue publications. Former chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer have also indicated the administration was investigating ways to review the First Amendment laws protecting press freedom.

Experts have also warned that the administration could use the 100 year-old Espionage Act, used to prosecute dissenters in World War I, to prosecute journalists.

However some Democrats joined Republicans in criticizing the Washington Post for publishing transcripts of Trump's conversations with foreign leaders this week.

"This is beyond the pale and will have a chilling effect going forward on the ability of the commander in chief to have candid discussions with his counterparts," Ned Price, a former National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, told The Hill.

The Freedom of Press Foundation warned that the DOJ crackdown threatened the press' capacity to hold the government to account.

In a statement Friday, director Trevor Timm said, "Journalists cannot do their job without sources willing to talk with them — sources that often put their livelihoods at risk in order to get information to the public. And the coming leak crackdown has the potential to upend accountability journalism in the Trump era."

Writing in the New York Times, law professors RonNell Andersen Jones of the University of Utah and Sonja R. West of the University of Georgia, have warned that First Amendment protections of press freedom are flimsier than some believe.

"We cannot simply sit back and expect that the First Amendment will rush in to preserve the press, and with it our right to know. Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be," they wrote shortly after Trump's inauguration.