The presidency has changed Donald Trump – at least when it comes to his take on the morality of government leaks.
In the days before his election, Trump the candidate touted a damaging – and false – leak reported and subsequently retracted by Fox News. Parroting the initial claim, he told supporters at a rally in Jacksonville that FBI agents said their investigation into Clinton’s use of private email server was “likely to yield an indictment.”
It was hardly an outlier.
Trump during the campaign routinely applauded Wikileaks for its role in disseminating the contents of internal communications stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign. He even publicly encouraged the Russians to “to find the 30,000 emails (from Clinton’s server) that are missing.”
Asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta at that July 27 news conference whether he would call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to quit any potential interference in the election, Trump demurred.
Then he explained why Americans shouldn’t get hung up on the source of leaked information.
“It’s not even about Russia or China or whoever it is that’s doing the hacking,” he said. “It was about the things that were said in those emails. They were terrible things, talking about Jewish, talking about race, talking about atheist, trying to pin labels on people. What was said was a disgrace.”
In other words, Trump argued, it was the news – and not the sources – that mattered.
DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schulz was forced to resign in the aftermath of the DNC hack. Internal emails showed officials discussing ways to undermine Sen. Bernie Sanders’ primary.
Again, Trump crowed with delight.
“E-mails say the rigged system is alive & well!” Trump tweeted on July 24, after she abruptly stepped down on the eve of the Democratic convention. “Crooked Hillary Clinton knew everything that her ‘servant’ was doing at the DNC - they just got caught, that’s all!”
A little more than three months after the DNC episode, Trump defeated Clinton in the general election. With his new job came quickly evolved view on the value of leaked information. He picked fights with the Intelligence Community almost immediately.
When CNN reported on January 10 that Trump and President Barack Obama had been briefed on claims by Russian operatives that they possessed compromising information about Trump, the president-elect lashed out.
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public,” he tweeted the next morning. “One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
While Trump disputed the details of the unverified dossier, he never denied the substance of the CNN report, which stated only that he and Obama had been presented a summary of its details.
Trump has followed a similar pattern in his response to the series of bombshell revelations that led, on Monday night, to the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.
According to multiple reports from a number of news outlets, including CNN, Flynn had not only discussed US sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, he had misled Vice President Mike Pence, who denied it on his behalf.
Another leak revealed that the former acting attorney general, Sally Yates, had informed the White House weeks earlier that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians.
“The level of trust between the President and Gen. Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday, explaining why Flynn had been sacked. “The President was very concerned that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others.”
But Trump on Wednesday deflected from the substance of the information and attacked the sources.
“General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he had been treated very, very unfairly by the media. As I call it, ‘the fake media,’ in many cases,” he said during a joint press conference with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. “From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It’s criminal action. Criminal act.”
His comments followed a morning tweetstorm that declared “the real scandal” was not Flynn’s behavior or the White House’s response, but that “that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy.”
“Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?),” he tweeted an hour earlier.
The recriminations continued apace on Thursday morning, when he declared, “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!
Trump, clearly angered by barrage of unauthorized disclosures, had come along since the Al Smith Dinner in October. In his remarks at the typically light-hearted white tie fundraiser, he played leaks for laughs.
“I wasn’t really sure if Hillary was going to be here tonight because, I guess, you didn’t send her invitation by email,” Trump joked. “Or maybe you did, and she just found out about it through the wonder of WikiLeaks.
“We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks,” he added, as attendees on the dais shifted quietly in their seats.