Press freedom advocates on Wednesday slammed President Donald Trump over revelations that he had asked former FBI director James Comey to consider putting journalists in jail—a startling detail that was buried inside Tuesday's bombshell New York Times report that Trump had asked Comey to drop his investigation against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
"Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey's associates," Times reporter Michael Schmidt wrote.
The news quickly raised alarm bells.
"The comments attributed to President Trump cross a dangerous line," Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Wednesday. "But no president gets to jail journalists. Reporters are protected by judges and juries, by a congress that relies on them to stay informed, and by a Justice Department that for decades has honored the role of a free press by spurning prosecutions of journalists for publishing leaks of classified information."
Schmidt's revelations also follow the Washington Post separately reporting that part of the reason Trump abruptly fired Comey last week was that he believed the FBI was not doing enough to investigate the leaks coming out of his administration.
As the Guardian's Trevor Timm noted Wednesday, the president "was even insisting at one point that the FBI needed to go after leaks about non-classified information (which is not a crime by anyone's standards)."
The comments seem to reflect the Trump administration's leanings toward authoritarianism.
While the White House under former President Barack Obama became known for its aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, officials never went after the outlets that published the information. Former Attorney General Eric Holder pledged in 2014 that he would not jail journalists for doing their jobs—but Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to make a similar promise during his confirmation hearings.
It's bad enough for press freedom that Trump is so determined to go after whistleblowers and sources within his administration who are attempting to get the truth to the American public. When their sources are investigated, journalists face the prospect of surveillance or subpoenas to testify and it can inhibit important investigative reporting. But directly prosecuting journalists is an unprecedented step that should send a chill down the spine of any American who values the first amendment—no matter their political persuasion.
And Peter Certo writes at OtherWords, "Was this an impulsive request? Not likely. In fact, the administration appears to have been laying the groundwork for this for some time." Certo notes the administration's antagonistic response to WikiLeaks once the organization published hacked CIA documents.
The revelations also come at an ironic time, as Trump hosted strongman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Washington, D.C., while Erdoğan's bodyguards attacked protesters outside the embassy. The Committee to Protect Journalists described Trump's meeting with the Turkish president as part of a "shameful trifecta" that followed meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Still, the Reporters Committee's Brown said, "[c]omments such as these, emerging in the way they did, only remind us that every day public servants are reaching out to reporters to ensure the public is aware of the risks today to rule of law in this country. The president's remarks should not intimidate the press but inspire it."