One of Donald Trump’s most intense preoccupations since becoming president has been catching leakers who supply journalists with secret information. While Trump was already on the record as advocating for the execution of Edward Snowden, his problem with leaks wasn’t personal before, and it didn’t obsess him like it does now. “We’re going to find the leakers, and they’re going to pay a big price,” the president told reporters in February, after anonymous sources helped break open the story of disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s improper interactions with Russia. It has also been reported—with the help of anonymous sources, of course—that Trump asked now-former FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists who publish classified information.
Given Trump’s stated interest in catching leakers and punishing them, it makes total sense that the arrest of a government contractor for leaking National Security Agency documents to the Intercept would be interpreted as evidence that his war on leakers is now underway. As New York Times national security reporter Adam Goldman wrote on Twitter, “The crackdown on leaks has begun in earnest.” Goldman then added, “This leak arrest has huge implications. Signals Sessions/Rosenstein are going to carry out Trump’s marching orders and imprison leakers.”
There’s an obvious logic to this analysis: Trump has made clear to his Justice Department that he wants leakers sniffed out and prosecuted, and now his Justice Department is doing exactly that. But before we ring the alarm and decide we’ve entered a new era—one in which the president stops yelling about leakers and starts trying to put them in prison—it’s worth remembering the actions of the previous administration. It’s also worth remembering what motivates Donald Trump.
First, as USA Today reporter Brad Heath argued on Twitter, it’s almost certain that Barack Obama’s Department of Justice would have sought to prosecute the alleged leaker, 25-year-old Reality Winner, had this occurred during his administration. This is not just because Winner is accused of having done something obviously illegal and made herself incredibly easy to catch. It’s because Obama himself took an infamously severe stance on leakers and whistleblowers. In addition to prosecuting at least six government employees and two contractors under the Espionage Act, Obama pushed for a national security exception to a media shield law aimed at protecting journalists. He also introduced an initiative called the Insider Threat Program that directed government employees to monitor one another, and his Justice Department secretly obtained phone records for Associated Press journalists as part of an investigation into the release of classified information. In 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report arguing that Obama had waged the most aggressive “war on leaks” of any president since Nixon. According to the report, “Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and email records.”
But “Obama would have done it too” isn’t even the best reason to resist the argument that Winner’s arrest represents a disturbing new stage in Trump’s campaign against leakers. That’s because Trump, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t care that much about leakers like Winner, whose disclosure to the Intercept concerned intelligence on Russian military operations aimed at interfering with the 2016 election. The leakers Trump cares about—the ones who stir rage in him and cause him to fantasize about jailing journalists—are the ones who release information that personally embarrasses him and make him feel like he can’t trust the people around him. The motivating emotion behind the unhinged rants he has delivered on the subject of leaks is that he expects loyalty from the people around him and deeply resents anyone who makes him look like a fool.
Winner’s disclosure, to be fair, does undermine Trump’s contention that “the Russia story” is a “hoax,” and it does feed into the idea that his enemies are trying to discredit his victory over Hillary Clinton. Even so, it doesn’t inflict the same amount of psychic damage as, say, the revelation that Jared Kushner sought to open a secret communications channel with the Russian ambassador, which put a member of his own family in legal danger and demonstrated the seriousness of the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian officials. It also doesn’t come with the same sting as scoops about Trump blurting out secrets to the Russians during their visit to the Oval Office, or Trump not realizing what he was agreeing to when he signed an executive order putting Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, or Trump watching TV in the White House by himself while wearing nothing but a bathrobe.
Those are the kinds of leaks that anger Trump. And what drives his anger is not some high-minded concern for national security but his sense of being disrespected by a disobedient press corps and his instinct for lashing out at anyone he feels has humiliated him. That’s why, assuming Donald Trump’s “war on leakers” does actually get going, it will be about punishing those who reveal things that make people laugh at Donald Trump. And while Winner’s arrest may end up having a chilling effect on other potential whistleblowers, it will not have happened because Trump finally followed through on his threats. Rather, it will be business as usual for a Department of Justice that most likely approached this case the way it would have under any administration. Trump, for his part, seems to know that Reality Winner is not the kind of target he’s really looking for. As of Tuesday afternoon, he hasn’t even tweeted about it.