Donald Trump wants Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation of a political enemy … again.
Trump wants to maybe take some kind of action against the New York Times … again.
While talking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump—in response to a question about whether the Justice Department should investigate the author of the anonymous op-ed—said, “Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security.”
In response to reporters asking if he had thought about taking “action” against the New York Times for publishing the op-ed and hiding the author’s identity, Trump said—as he frequently does—”I’m looking at that right now.”
It would be easy to hyperventilate about this: Trump is siccing his Justice Department on his political opponents and the media! He wants to muzzle the free press! This is worse than Nixon!
But for much of his professional life, and especially as a politician, Trump and his staff have periodically leaked and issued completely empty threats against news organizations— especially the Times—that see little or no follow-through. He also regularly directs the Justice Department to go after his political opponents, especially Hillary Clinton, and then, taking a complementary tack, lamented that the DOJ charged two Republican allies with crimes before their November elections.
While Trump fails to understand the tradition of Justice Department independence, there is no indication that Sessions takes these complaints particularly seriously or acts on them.
And for all Trump’s fulminating against leakers, the two prosecutions the DOJ has managed to scare up are an indictment of a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer for allegedly lying to investigators and the conviction of former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner for sending documents about election interference to the Intercept.
While there are legitimate questions around the wisdom or harshness of these cases, neither of them address Trump’s core complaint of people in the government leaking embarrassing or damaging information about him personally.
When outside organizations and individuals publicize things about him he doesn’t like, Trump can’t unleash the DOJ, so instead his lawyers say they’re going to file lawsuits that never appear.
After the Times published a story about two women who accused Trump of touching them inappropriately, Trump’s lawyers wrote a letter to the paper, and it was reported that they were “drafting” a lawsuit, which of course never came to fruition. That wasn’t the first time during the campaign that Trump’s lawyers issued an empty threat against the Times: After the paper published a portion of Trump’s tax return, Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, said, “The New York Times should be held accountable and I hope that he sues them into oblivion for doing this,” while a Trump lawyer threatened “prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.” There was none.
Trump’s crusade against news organizations that make him mad has been even broader than his and his lawyers’ specific, empty threats: There’s his campaign to “open” or “take a strong look” at libel laws (which are done at the state level, not federal). And his pledge to do … something … to Amazon because he’s mad at Jeff Bezos for also owning the Washington Post.
But never fear. Even if Trump did want more followthrough on these spur-of-the-moment ideas, his staff would likely ignore or distract him until he moved on to ranting about something else. After all, there’s an op-ed and a whole book saying this happens all the time.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus