White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed a question about supporters of Donald Trump, who chanted “CNN sucks” during a rally in Tampa, Florida, on July 31 .
The reply Sanders gave was unusual, especially since it had absolutely nothing to do with the question. Nonetheless, it reflected the posture of a presidential administration willing to advance policies that pose a threat to press freedom.
“Is the White House willing to say right now in view of what happened with one of our TV colleagues last night that it is wrong for [Trump’s] most vocal supporters to be menacing toward journalists doing their jobs or in any situation?” the reporter asked.
Sanders provided a boilerplate answer about the president not supporting “violence against anyone or anything.” She then briefly spoke about what the administration sees as the media’s “responsibility.”
“We fully support a free press, but there also comes a high level of responsibility with that,” Sanders declared. “The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risk valuable national security tools.”
“This has happened both in our administration and in past administrations. One of the worst cases was the reporting on the U.S. ability to listen to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in the late ’90s. Because of that reporting, he stopped using that phone and the country lost valuable intelligence. Unfortunately, it’s now standard to abandon common sense ethical practices,” Sanders added.
The reporter who asked the question attempted to clarify what he said because Sanders’ answer had very little to do with the issue he raised.
“No one was being violent last night in terms of hitting anybody, and no broadcaster was trying to broadcast state secrets,” the reporter stated. “[Broadcasters] were trying to do standups at a public rally, and you had people trying to yell over them and prevent them from doing their jobs and yelling that their network sucks.”
To which Sanders concluded, “We certainly support freedom of the press. We also support freedom of speech, and we think that those things go hand-in-hand.”
The response made it clear that the administration does not have much of an issue with Trump supporters trying to shut down news broadcasts, particularly if those broadcasts are by CNN. They view it as good for Trump to see supporters standing up for the president.
But why did Sanders read this statement about the media divulging state secrets?
On one hand, Trump is a countersubversive president. He routinely makes political statements attacking groups with robust histories of struggle for equality and justice. His administration raises the issue of publishing state secrets to appeal to a more neutral majority that may potentially agree the media abuses its responsibility and sympathize with supporters.
The statement is also reflective of policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the Trump administration’s leader in a government crackdown on leaks that extends back to when Barack Obama was president.
Sessions has said, “We will not allow rogue anonymous sources with security clearances to sell out our country. These cases, to investigate and prosecute, are never easy. But cases will be made, and leakers will be held accountable.”
He does not believe that journalists have a First Amendment right to publish information related to national security that is in the public interest.
When asked during his confirmation hearing, Sessions did not unequivocally oppose jailing journalists. Instead, he said, “You could have a situation in which a media is not really the unbiased media we see today, and they could be a mechanism through which unlawful intelligence is obtained.”
In February 2017, Trump tweeted, “Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years.” He suggested the New York Times and other media organizations must apologize for, in effect, committing acts of journalism.
“The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!” Trump added.
Clearly, if NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had disclosed documents revealing mass surveillance that infringed upon the privacy of millions while Trump was president, Sessions would have had no problem supporting an effort to target the journalists who published his disclosures. Trump would have enthusiastically supported such an effort by the Justice Department.
Border Patrol agent Jeffrey Rambo flew from California to Washington, D.C., to grill journalist Ali Watkins about her sources. She had a relationship with James Wolfe, the former security officer for the Senate intelligence committee who is charged with lying to the FBI about a leak.
On July 12, it was reported that the Homeland Security Department is investigating Rambo because he accessed Watkins’ travel records and likely misused a government computer. He was essentially trying to blackmail a reporter by asking her to reveal information about her confidential sources.
With regard to Wolfe’s case, it is known that the FBI was allegedly interested in disclosures related to when Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, testified before the Senate intelligence committee in a closed session.
Trump has not been bashful in expressing his view that the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election should end. What sort of encouragement or incentives are the heads of some of these law enforcement agencies willing to give to low-level employees to take initiative and keep tabs on journalists trying to expose them?
Overall, the decision to invoke national security to distract from the fact that journalists have an absolute right to publish under the First Amendment is far more troubling than the administration’s unwillingness to scold supporters who despise CNN. It is a conscious effort to further transform press freedom into a culture war issue that can benefit Trump and force journalists to defend their craft from establishment forces that are often too willing to cater to powerful government institutions.