President Trump has sacked his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after only 24 days on the job for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence intercepted “repeated contacts” between Trump associates and “senior Russian intelligence officials” last year, even as Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services were hacking Democratic email accounts and leaking the stolen documents to try to help Trump. This is a serious business, raising questions about whether Trump, who never misses an opportunity to express his admiration for Putin, or his aides were actively colluding with a Kremlin operation to subvert American democracy.
Serious Republicans understand the gravity of the situation, with former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who has generally been sympathetic to the president, writing: “The Trump administration should shock everyone by demanding a major congressional investigation into the whole dangerous mess. The White House ought to welcome the opportunity to clear the air.”
But instead of addressing these legitimate concerns with the kind of serious, informative answers they deserve, President Trump has chosen to launch an unrelenting attack on the “fake news media” and “low-life leakers.” At his mind-blowing news conference Thursday, Trump somehow managed to combine these two lines of attack, saying, “The leaks are absolutely real,” but “the news is fake.”
Huh? How can the leaks be real but reports of them false?
This is as puzzling as Trump’s praise for Flynn. On Wednesday, he called the cashiered national security adviser a “wonderful man” who has “been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases.” But if Flynn were treated so unfairly, why didn’t Trump keep him on the job?
The president’s statements are incoherent and illogical, but there is a purpose behind them — he is trying to mobilize his most fervent supporters against the news media (“the enemy of the American people,” as he called them in an echo of totalitarian propaganda) in order to avoid having to explain what he himself has called “the Russian connection.” And to a dismaying extent the strategy is working, with much of the right-wing media and many Republican politicians predictably claiming that the leaks are the real story. The president’s fans are getting riled up about this security breach, and they are floating imaginative theories about how a nefarious “Deep State” is sabotaging the Trump presidency.
This is pretty rich given that until recently, Trump and his supporters were cheering on leaks. During the campaign, after all, Trump said, “I love WikiLeaks,” meaning that he loved the emails that Russian intelligence was releasing via WikiLeaks. He even invited Russia to reveal even more of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Trump was just as enthusiastic about FBI Director James Comey’s unusual public statements about the investigation into Clinton’s emails, which helped him win the election. “I have to give the FBI credit,” Trump said.
Now that he is the victim, rather than the beneficiary, of leaks, Trump no longer likes them. But, hey, for better or worse, that’s the way the Washington game is played. The government has always leaked and always will. Railing against leaks is like railing against Washington’s summertime humidity — it might be momentarily satisfying, but it doesn’t accomplish much.
And while it is of course better for secrets to remain secret, not all leaks are necessarily bad. Pretty much everyone would agree that there is an exception for whistle-blowers who reveal evidence of illicit activity that needs to be exposed and stopped. That is what FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” did during Watergate, and that is what today’s leakers — whoever they are — are doing by exposing Flynn’s lies and the Trump camp’s Russia ties.
Is there a price to be paid in exposing U.S. intelligence capabilities? Perhaps so, but these leaks are not remotely as damaging as those of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. The Russians were undoubtedly aware that their ambassador’s communications were monitored by U.S. intelligence, just as our ambassador in Moscow can expect that his communications are monitored by the Russians. Flynn, as a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, knew this. Why he would have conducted these conversations, which he must have known were being wiretapped, and then lied about them afterward is one of many mysteries that need to be addressed.
It is perhaps too much to hope for, but it would be nice if Republicans treated Kremlingate as seriously as they treated the issue of Clinton’s email server or the Benghazi attack. There is a desperate need for a credible, bipartisan investigation to get to the bottom of this murky business — and, as Peggy Noonan suggests, the president should welcome such an inquiry if he has nothing to hide. Otherwise, the administration will continue to drown in the drip drip drip of leaks.