Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trump and the Role of the Press: Two Stories

President Trump and FBI Director James Comey/Getty
"No drama Obama," they called him. Well, Trump is making up for our blessed period of tranquility in the White House with a vengeance. Nearly every day there is more drama. Here are two stories with diametrically opposed implications. . . . 

The First Story: Bad Leaking and a Failure of the Press

Yesterday there were leaks to the Washington Post suggesting that Trump disclosed (and compromised) highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador during a meeting at the White House last Wednesday. Notably the meeting was attended by a Russian photographer, but the American press was kept out. The Washington Post highlighted the story with great fanfare.

The leakers indicated that the president disclosed confidential intelligence sources relating to computer bombs being developed by ISIS in order to attack commercial airplanes. The administration learned about this from Israeli intelligence in March, thanks to an Israeli spy embedded with ISIS.  This led to the much discussed laptop ban on flights from certain Middle Eastern countries. See this Jake Tapper report on CNN. "Don't disclose the name of the city" where the intelligence came from, CNN was instructed. It also appears that the information was shared by the Israelis on the condition that the information be kept confidential. Disclosing this information will "get people killed," the administration informed CNN in March. Yesterday, Trump didn't keep the information confidential; he disclosed the city where the information came from to the Russians. 

But this laptop story is all about the press, and harmful administration leaks, not about Trump. What is the real security concern here?  Even if the name of the city where this Israeli spy is (or was) embedded with ISIS was disclosed to the Russians, it seems a stretch that this would naturally lead to the Russians disclosing this information to ISIS. The Russians may not be our friends, but they have no interest in compromising an Israeli spy embedded with ISIS. So what's the real concern, beyond having to alert the Israelis, and apologize with egg on face. 

The real concern here is that some undisclosed persons in the White House leaked the story to the Washington Post, and the Post saw fit to publish the information. To the extent that Trump's disclosure presents a danger to the Israeli spy, it's not because of what Trump said to the Russians; the danger comes from the fact that the press has obsessed over this for 24 plus hours to the point that every last ISIS mercenary knows the story. So we have to ask ourselves, did the leakers in the White House help or hurt the cause of maintaining this information confidential? Did the press help or hurt the interest of maintaining this information confidential? Did the leakers or the press do any favors to this embedded spy? Did the leaks or the press reports serve the public interest?  I don't think so. 

Some have gushed on Twitter: "great reporting is driving the agenda". But is this story great reporting? Or is it self-serving fomenting, doing what the press does best, appealing to our base emotions to drive clicks? The leakers' motives in this story was not to protect the Israeli spy, or to appease the Israeli intelligence community--so they will continue to cooperate--the motive was to embarrass Trump. Not a laudable goal in and of itself.

You can see why the White House, no matter who the occupant is, dislikes leakers and distrusts the press. Shit happens, and Trump is pretty hard to control. But both the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, felt that the conversation with the Russians about aviation security was appropriate. We have no real reason to doubt it. To the extent that Trump overstepped by sharing confidential information received from the Israelis, the way to handle this is apparent: inform the relevant agencies, inform the Israelis, and apologize. No big deal.  All the harm in the ISIS spy story was caused by the leakers and the press. 

The Second Story: Great Reporting and a Big Deal

Today. . . more drama.  This afternoon there was a New York times story based on a leaked Comey memo. In the memo, Comey documents an Oval Office private conversation with the president where Trump asked Comey to shut down the ongoing investigation into Michael Flynn's Russia ties. "I hope you can let this go," said the president.  

Michael Flynn, Trump's campaign aide and national security advisor after the inauguration, had been  asked to resign for having lied to the Vice President about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak. 

The day after Flynn's resignation, suggests the Comey memo, Trump asked Comey to shut down the FBI's investigation into Flynn's contacts with the Russian.  Comey did not, and now the president has fired Comey.  

Now that's a big deal. It smells like obstruction of justice. It's great reporting, and it's pursuing leaks that are in the public interest.  This leak is in the public interest because it goes to the heart of an obstruction of justice that we might never find out about without the leak. It's like Watergate . . . we don't want our presidents to break into the offices of political opponents, we don't want them to obstruct justice by shutting down an ongoing FBI investigation; we want them to be accountable to us. Without leakers and a diligent and dogged press, our public officials would be a lot less accountable.  

As these two stories illustrate, it's a complicated business, this leaking of government information and press reporting. . . . 

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