During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, attorney general nominee William Barr was asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whether his Justice Department would “jail journalists for doing their jobs.”
Barr, President Trump’s pick for the nation’s top law enforcement officer, said he could envision a situation where a news organization or individual journalist could be held in contempt of court.
“I think that, uh, you know I know there are guidelines in place,” Barr said after a seven-second pause. “And I can conceive of situations where, uh, you know, as a last resort, and where a news organization has run through a red flag or something like that, knows that they’re putting out stuff that will hurt the country. There might — there could be a situation where somebody could be held in contempt.”
Klobuchar, whose father was a longtime journalist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told Barr that she would like his answer to the committee in writing, noting that she had asked former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the same during his confirmation hearings in 2017.
Trump has had an adversarial relationship with the media throughout his presidency, disparaging critical stories as “fake news” and floating the idea of prosecuting journalists and news outlets that publish them. Trump has also openly mused about changes to libel law to make it easier for the subjects of news stories to sue. And last year, the White House temporarily revoked press credentials for CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta following a contentious exchange with Trump at a press conference.
But presidential clashes with the press predate Trump. During President Barack Obama’s administration, the Justice Department subpoenaed telephone records of Associated Press journalists and named Fox News correspondent James Rosen as a potential co-conspirator in separate leak cases. The Obama DOJ also refused to drop a case involving New York Times reporter James Risen that began during the George W. Bush administration. (Risen refused to testify about his confidential source in the federal investigation of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling. Risen lost a Supreme Court appeal, but then-Attorney General Eric Holder ultimately decided not to force his testimony.)
“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power,” Risen wrote in an op-ed three weeks before Trump’s inauguration. “Barack Obama.”
Last June, law enforcement officials seized years’ worth of phone and email records of a Times reporter, Ali Watkins, in a leak investigation of James Wolfe, the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee and Watkins’ ex-boyfriend. (Wolfe was charged with lying to FBI investigators about his contacts with reporters.)
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet called the seizure “a troublesome development.”
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” the paper said.
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