President Trump asked former FBI Director Jim Comey to lock up journalists for publishing classified information during a February Oval Office meeting, according to a memo written by Comey shortly after the meeting summarized Tuesday by The New York Times.
Trump urged Comey to imprison journalists at the beginning of an exchange during which he also asked the former FBI chief to back off an investigation into then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, according to the story:
Mr. Comey had been in the Oval Office that day with other senior national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When the meeting ended, Mr. Trump told those present — including Mr. Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to leave the room except for Mr. Comey.
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.
This isn’t the first time President Trump has threatened to curtail press access or punish leakers. On March 20, he tweeted, “must find leaker now!” in response to successive stories about the ongoing FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s associates and Russian officials.
This latest revelation is “a disturbing yet unsurprising culmination of Trump’s war on the press,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in an email.
“Reporting on classified information is a bedrock right of journalists, and so I guess it’s only natural, given his past statements, that Trump wants to take that away,” he said. “Any prosecution of reporters for publishing true information about our government would strike at the very heart of press freedom.”
The comments by President Trump “cross a dangerous line,” Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said in a statement.
“But no president gets to jail journalists,” he continued. “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.”
“Comments 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,” he said. “The president’s remarks should not intimidate the press but inspire it.”
Perhaps the most troubling thing about the exchange is that it represents an “unprecedented” departure from the practices of previous presidential administrations with regard to leak investigations, said Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the Obama administration, reporters were ensnared and subpoenaed in investigations that targeted leakers, not journalists. This is more direct, Simon said.
And it’s in line with an analysis conducted by CPJ that found prosecution of journalists in leak investigations is the No. 1 threat to press freedom posed by the Trump administration, Simon said.
“We did our own internal analysis of what we perceived as the greatest potential threats of the Trump administration,” he said. “This was at the top.”