Frustrated by leaks to the news media, President Donald Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to “consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information,” according to the New York Times.
The closed-door meeting was revealed in the Times’ bombshell report Tuesday that Trump asked Comey to end the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, who lost his job in January as national security adviser following revelations he misled the vice president about conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
Trump fired Comey last week as the FBI investigated whether Trump associates colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. The following day, Trump revealed highly classified information to Russia’s ambassador and top diplomat.
The president’s private view about imprisoning journalists should elevate fears that his administration may break with tradition and prosecute reporters for publishing classified information ― as opposed to only those who leak it. The Obama administration aggressively targeted leakers for unauthorized disclosures, but did not charge news outlets for publication.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder pledged in 2014 that he would not jail journalists for doing their jobs, but Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, refused to make a similar commitment during his Senate confirmation hearing. Sessions recently left the door open to prosecuting news organization amid reports the Justice Department is targeting WikiLeaks.
The Times report alarmed press advocates Tuesday.
“The comments attributed to President Trump cross a dangerous line,” Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement.
“But no president gets to jail journalists,” Brown continued. “Reporters are protected by judges and juries, by a Congress that relies on them to stay informed, and by a Justice Department that for decades has honored the role of a free press by spurning prosecutions of journalists for publishing leaks of classified information.”
While Trump promotes favorable coverage, he seems to bristle at the slightest scrutiny and waged the most anti-press presidential campaign in recent memory, complete with blacklisting critical news outlets and greatly restricting media access at events. He has also mused about changing libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations, a power he doesn’t appear to have.
Trump has long showed reverence for autocrats whose anti-democratic campaigns have included clamping down on free expression. He recently extended a White House invitation to Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who has justified killing journalists. And just hours before the Times story broke on Tuesday, Trump met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the world’s leading jailer of journalists.
This article has been updated to include comment from Brown.