“[I]s it really just pure coincidence that the Sessions story broke just after Trump delivered a widely acclaimed address to Congress?” writes Marc Thiessen in a column today at WaPo. Jay Cost had the same thought this weekend. The collection of information on Trump aides’ contacts with Russians may not be suspicious, Cost argued, as there may be good reason for the FBI to have found the extent of their communications unusual. But the dispersion of that information to that press, coinciding as it has with moments of good press for Trump, seems dodgy.
Erick Erickson wrote up a timeline this morning attempting to correlate big moments for Trump — becoming the nominee, winning the election, being inaugurated, giving his address to Congress — with the publication of damaging new reports about Russia and the campaign. Some of those efforts are less successful than others: For instance, he flags this summary of Trump’s history with Russia, published eight days after he became the nominee, as evidence that the media had suddenly begun speculating about Trump’s Russia ties. That story, though, was driven by the famous press conference at which Trump half-jokingly asked Russia to go find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. Trump had also famously defended Putin before, even when asked about him murdering journalists, and he’d been a conspicuously vocal critic of NATO. His team had succeeded in changing the GOP platform to water down its support for Ukraine in that country’s standoff with Russia. And Trump’s campaign was led by Paul Manafort, a former advisor to Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych. There were reasons to find Trump’s support for Russia odd based on public information, without any leaks from the federal bureaucracy, based purely on things Trump or his team had said or done.
But some of the stories involving actual leaks sure do seem coincidental. The NYT piece alleging “wiretapped communications” involving Trump aides appeared on literally the eve of the inauguration, January 19th. The reports that Jeff Sessions had neglected to mention during his confirmation hearing that he’d met with the Russian ambassador appeared on the evening after Trump’s address to Congress, even though Sessions had given his testimony weeks before. Erickson notes that the FBI joined the CIA’s assessment that Russia had meddled in the campaign for the specific purpose of helping Trump three days before the electoral college voted, when the left was agitating for “faithless electors.” Maybe this really is all coincidence: The first few months after an election are filled with significant political events, and if an investigation into Russian influence is proceeding parallel to that, it may be that the leaks are destined to coincide to some extent with major political happenings. But given that Trump has enemies inside the government, whether for ideological reasons or bureaucratic ones (remember how harshly he criticized the intelligence community for its Russia conclusions before taking office?), you don’t have to reach far to see patterns here. The left, after all, has complained endlessly about Comey releasing his letter about Hillary’s emails just 10 days before the election. Maybe the anti-Trump leakers feel that damaging him at moments when he’s riding high politically is a matter of turnabout being fair play.
The goal, presumably, is to try to tamp down public enthusiasm for him before he can gain momentum politically, which might encourage him to go bigger and bolder in the changes he wants to make. If you don’t like Trump’s ideology, you have a strong interest in making sure he remains unpopular. A new Monmouth poll out today and taken entirely after last Tuesday’s well-received speech puts his job approval at 43/46, which is in line with his pre-speech polling. The RCP poll average shows some modest improvement after the speech, gaining a point and a half in approval and losing a point or so in disapproval, but there’s no evidence of a dramatic spike in support for Trump despite the fact that the speech was given good marks by most of the public. That may be due to the Sessions leak: Trump’s enemies, anticipating that the speech might be a hit, may have begun leaking in the days before, knowing that the papers would use the Sessions news to step on any good buzz afterward by renewing suspicions about Trump’s relationship with Russia. Timing should be considered in all future leaks. If next month’s jobs report shows major gains in hiring and a new Russia story drops in the 72 hours following, is that a coincidence? Stay tuned.