Political News

Trump Praises Arrest of Former Senate Committee Aide in Leaks Inquiry

Posted June 8, 2018 5:20 p.m. EDT
Updated June 8, 2018 5:24 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday praised the arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide who is accused of lying to investigators about his contacts with reporters in an inquiry into leaks of classified information.

The president called the former Senate aide, James A. Wolfe, “a very important leaker.” Wolfe, the committee’s former director of security, was arrested Thursday at his home in Ellicott City, Maryland.

As part of its investigation, federal law enforcement officials secretly seized a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records going back several years.

“It could be a terrific thing,” Trump said of the arrest, speaking to reporters as he left Washington for the Group of 7 summit in Canada.

“I’m a big, big believer in freedom of the press,” Trump said. “But I’m also a believer in classified information. It has to remain classified.” Wolfe was not accused of illegally disclosing national security secrets.

It was the first known instance during the Trump administration of the Justice Department going after a reporter’s data.

“Reporters can’t leak. You cannot leak classified information. At the same time, we need freedom of the press. But you cannot leak,” Trump said, speaking to reporters. Previously, Trump has suggested that reporters should be jailed for publishing classified information.

Wolfe made his first court appearance Friday in federal court in Baltimore, about 15 miles from his home. Before the proceedings, he quietly reviewed papers with his lawyer, Christian Lassiter, an attorney in the Maryland public defender’s office.

He did not enter a plea and was released on several conditions, including that he turn in his passport, travel only in Maryland and, for legal proceedings, in the District of Columbia, and that not make unauthorized disclosures of classified information. He was scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in federal court in the District of Columbia.

Wolfe, a former Army intelligence analyst, stopped performing committee work in December and retired in May.

He worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans in a bipartisan fashion for more than 30 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, and their secretive operations.

The committee’s staff follows strict rules for the handling of delicate, and often classified, information for one of the most tightly secured committees in Congress. Wolfe would have been responsible for enforcing those rules. The committee is also conducting its own investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. As part of that, the committee has reviewed reams of classified materials related to the election meddling and met with current and former Trump aides.

The investigation of Wolfe came to light this week after the committee said it was cooperating with the Justice Department “in a pending investigation arising out of the unauthorized disclosure of information.”

“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman. “This decision by the Justice Department will endanger reporters’ ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much-needed light on government actions. That should be a grave concern to anyone who cares about an informed citizenry.”

Obtaining information a reporter’s records is considered an “extraordinary” measure that must be approved by top Justice Department officials, according to the guidelines for federal prosecutors. Per federal statute, agents must make “all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources.”

A Justice Department official who spoke on background because the matter pertains to an ongoing criminal investigation said that all regulations were followed.

The Trump administration has been troubled by a flood of embarrassing leaks, and the president has pushed law enforcement officials to seek criminal charges against government officials who make unauthorized disclosures to the news media.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been responsive. Last year, he said the department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama administration. The Justice Department under President Barack Obama prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.

Lawyers and journalism experts have argued that the Espionage Act applies to the person who leaks the classified information — not to publishers or journalists. But the act is written so broadly that, in theory, it could apply to the news media.

Trump has suggested that the justice system is not balanced in the prosecution of leaks. He reminded reporters on Friday that he thinks the former FBI director James B. Comey is guilty of leaking classified information — a contention the president often raises in his diatribes about Comey, whom he fired last year. Comey has denied making illegal disclosures.