Trump confirms intelligence leaks probe at combative news conference

Posted at 4:57 PM, Feb 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-16 16:57:32-05

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on February 16, 2017. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Trump furious over ‘very un-American’ leaks

During a Thursday press conference in which he repeatedly criticized his former rival Hillary Clinton and berated the “dishonest” media, President Donald Trump announced that he’d asked the Justice Department to investigate the U.S.’s intelligence agencies, following his insistence that leaks are a “big problem” in Washington.

The probe request comes after Trump claimed on Wednesday that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn — who wasforced to resign amid reports he illegally reassured to Russia’s ambassador about Trump’s willingness to modify sanctions before the president took office — was brought down after“papers” and “things” were leaked.

“I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks. Those are criminal leaks,” Trump said during the televised conference.

“We are looking into that very seriously. It’s a criminal act,” he said.

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Trump was considering hiring billionaire financier Stephen A. Feinberg, who has no previous experience with intelligence or national security, to oversee an investigation into the leaks. At the unwieldy Thursday press conference, Trump first confirmed, and then walked back, the report.

“He has offered his services, and, you know, it’s something we may take advantage of, but I don’t think we’ll need that at all,” Trump said, adding that the administration would be able to “straighten it out” with the requested Justice Department investigation.

Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) on Wednesday also asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the leaks of information that prompted Flynn to resign.

“We have serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified information here,” he wrote ina letter requesting the probe.

For leaks before he was against them

Trump hasn’t always been tough on leaks. During the presidential campaign, hecelebrated the hackers who broke into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails and leaked sensitive material.

“I love WikiLeaks!” he said at an October rally before reading some of the leaked Clinton emails, referring to the outlet that published the intercepted messages and materials. The FBI and intelligence communitylater released a report suggesting that Russian intelligence was behind the hacks.

But Trump changed his tune about leakers this week, when he began blaming them for Flynn’s downfall.

“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

The Washington Post cited nine anonymous sources ina Feb. 9 story claiming that Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about sanctions before the inauguration, a possible breach of a U.S. law forbidding private citizens from conducting diplomacy. The New York Timesran a similar story citing yet more unnamed sources.

“Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!” Trump tweeted Thursday. “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!”

On Thursday, Trump claimed the leaks that targeted Flynn were illegal since they involved classified information. Clinton’s email leak made private — but not classified — information public, he said.

Possible set-up for a larger role

The Department of Justice has not yet responded to either Trump’s or the House Oversight Committee’s requests for an investigation. The White House has not released any details about the still-possible Feinberg probe, either.

It’s not clear how either investigation will work within the current intelligence hierarchy. The Director of National Intelligence — a position currently filled by Deputy Director Mike Dempsey while Trump’s nominee, former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), awaits confirmation — traditionally supervises U.S. intelligence agencies.

There’s also no word on what possible actions the investigations could lead to. Changing the structure of intelligence agencies would require congressional approval, an unlikely feat even with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, the Times reported.
If the administration decides to still go the Feinberg route, current and former officials speculated that Trump could be priming the businessman for a larger intelligence job in the future. That could pave the way for Trump to have greater influence in the day-to-day operations of the intelligence community, which currently works outside of the White House’s direct oversight.

Feinberg spent entire career in finance and has no experience with national security, but he donated nearly $1.5 million to pro-Trump groups during the 2016 presidential campaign.