President Donald Trump quickly dismissed the James Comey memos as merely more of the fake news "witch hunt." But Comey's notes to himself about his meetings and phone calls with Trump strike the ring of truth in their consistency with what we know about the president.
We already knew that Trump had asked Comey for an ominous pledge of "loyalty" and to see if he could find a way to let former national security adviser Michael Flynn off the hook. And throughout the memos Comey describes a president who sounds like Trump. He does most of the talking, using disjointed, repetitious, "chaotic" language, which Comey calls "conversation-as-jigsaw-puzzle."
Predictably, the Trump monologue often circles back to Trump, touching on inauguration crowd size and the campaign. Sometimes he's defensive, protesting too much, maybe, that he really didn't mock a "handicapped" reporter or assault any of the women who have accused him.
Other parts of the memos are curious: Trump seems preoccupied with the allegation that the Russians have tapes of him consorting with prostitutes in the presidential suite at the Moscow Ritz Carlton. Again, Trump works hard to defend himself, calling the tapes a "complete fabrication." He expresses considerable concern that Melania might find out about an event that he contends never happened.
But then Trump and Comey turn to a different type of leaking. Of all the potential eyebrow-raisers, the one that caught my attention is on Page 10: Trump says, "it is really about the leaks." Trump is upset that embarrassing details of his fractious phone conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia had been revealed.
Comey commiserates. He says that leaks connected to FBI intelligence operations are "terrible" and a violation of the law. In fact, Comey says that he would like to find some leakers and "nail one to the door as a message." Later he mentions "the value of putting a head on a pike."
Encouraged, Trump says, "we need to go after the reporters." "Ten or 15 years ago," Trump says, "we put them in jail to find out what they know, and it worked."
Comey seems to have a "hold-on-a-second" moment. He tells Trump that going after reporters is "tricky, for legal reasons," and thus the Department of Justice is conservative about it. Trump tells Comey to talk to "Sessions" about "being more aggressive." Comey says that he will.
Before the conversation ends, Trump goes back to the problem of finding the leakers, which "may involve putting reporters in jail." "They spend a couple of days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk." "I laughed," Comey says, leaving the Oval Office.
Hilarious. But citizens concerned about freedom of the press shouldn't find this very amusing. It's sobering to hear the head of the FBI and the president talking casually about putting reporters in jail.
Maybe Comey is just accommodating his boss with a little facetious "locker room talk" about prison rape. But you get the feeling that Trump isn't exactly joking. A constant theme of his campaign and presidency involves hostility and contempt for the press. He's fantasized about loosening libel laws, and he speaks approvingly of international strongmen – Vladimir Putin, for example – who are much freer to intimidate, imprison and sometimes murder reporters.
It's worth noting occasionally how rare and precious is our freedom of the press. In 1734, the colonial governor of New York imprisoned John Peter Zenger, the publisher of the New-York Weekly Journal, for eight months on an allegation of libel. At his trial, the still-English jury returned a not guilty verdict in 10 minutes, saying, essentially, that in America things were going to be different. It takes vigilance to ensure that they stay that way.
No one argues that information that compromises national security should be revealed. But just about everything else, we have a right to know. Sometimes loose-lipped leakers and conscientious reporters serve the cause of liberty better than politicians. Trump poses all sorts of threats to our republic; his animosity to a free press is by no means the least of them.
– John M. Crisp, a columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.