The only thing more bizarre than witnessing the falling out between a megalomaniacal president and his lickspittle of an attorney general is watching what happens when the latter tries to get back in the former’s good graces. It usually doesn’t end well for the spectators.
During a press briefing at the Justice Department on Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used two of President Donald Trump’s favorite scapegoats—government leakers and the news media—to make one big, bizarre policy announcement designed entirely to get Trump to notice Sessions again (and presumably not fire him). It also was designed to strike fear in the heart of “leakers” and journalists alike by promising harsher punishments and more devoted investigations of both.
Trump presumably is upset at this week’s embarrassing leaks of transcripts from previous phone conversations in which he fought with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and begged Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto not to publicly admit there’s no way in hell Mexico is paying for a border wall. President Trump already is angry with Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe and not going after leakers hard enough.
This week, newly appointed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly appeared to be brokering peace between the two sides, telling Sessions that his job is safe for now, but that Trump is still upset.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would not say whether Friday’s news conference was held at the White House’s request, so we can assume that it probably was, to appease Trump’s inflated ego. But the reason Rosenstein, and not Sessions, was answering this question is an indication of how pathetic the entire production of the briefing was.
Here’s Politico’s description of what went down:
Friday’s event at Justice Department headquarters was carefully structured to ensure that Sessions’ message reached Trump with the fewest distractions possible. If reporters had the chance to question the attorney general about the Russia investigation, he might have demurred because he has recused from the probe. But with the recusal at the core of Trump’s complaints about Sessions, any televised scene of the attorney general broaching the subject could send the president into a blue rage.
So, Sessions filed out after he spoke. Cameras were then shut off at Justice officials’ insistence before Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein returned to take reporters’ questions about the nitty-gritty of the leak crackdown.
Politico also reported on the other disturbing aspect of the news conference, which is that it set out to psychologically link journalists with spies.
“We are here today to talk about the dramatic growth in the number of unauthorized disclosures of classified national security information in the past several months. This includes leaks to both the media and in some cases even unauthorized disclosures to our foreign adversaries,” Sessions said.
He later added, “We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop,” before strangely announcing, “the Department of Justice is open for business.” (The emphasis is mine, because I’m not even sure what it means.)
Sessions also noted that the Justice Department has “already charged four people with unlawfully disclosing classified material or with concealing contacts with foreign intelligence officers.”
“The other three are a definite spy, a maybe spy and a hoarder whose house poses a national security nightmare if anyone ever visits him,” writes national security law specialist Kel McClanahan.
Here’s the problem. By saying “I’m here to talk about leaks to the media,” and then talking about all sorts of other unlawful activities tied to classified information, Sessions has adroitly preyed on a logical fallacy we’ll call “false implication,” which is based on humans’ basic tendency to want to see patterns even where none exist. This is what happens when someone says two sentences that are both factually accurate, but have no relationship, yet are intended to imply a relationship.
The other problem, the national security expert says, is that Sessions is trying to falsely equate leakers with the word “spies,” and members of the media with the word “adversaries.”
Just the type of manipulation Trump loves. We’ll see if it has any effect on the toxic relationship between two toxic people who just happen to be in power.