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Assange prosecution shows Trump increasingly able to work his will, breaking constraints

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(LAT)

The end of the special counsel’s investigation has accelerated a central trend of President Trump’s third year in office: Increasingly, he feels emboldened to pursue his views and has found officials willing to put them into action.

Throughout his first year and well into the second, Trump often mistrusted or disagreed with top officials of his government. That, plus his inexperience with policy, led to repeated frustrations.

He still hits many roadblocks, but Trump now largely has officials in key spots who will carry out his policies, rather than thwart them. The Justice Department’s announcement Thursday that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, had been indicted under the Espionage Act provided the latest example.

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CROSSING A FIRST AMENDMENT LINE

For nearly a decade, prosecutors had looked at ways to bring charges against Assange, who in 2010 had disclosed a vast trove of classified government documents.

The major constraint they faced involved the 1st Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.

The Espionage Act, passed during World War I, outlaws the disclosure of national security secrets that damage U.S. interests to people not authorized to see them.

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Starting in the George W. Bush administration, prosecutors increasingly began using that law to go after officials who leaked classified documents. But the law had never been used to prosecute someone for publishing them.

Under President Obama, the Justice Department stepped up investigations of national security leaks. In some of those investigations, law enforcement agents secretly obtained reporters’ telephone records or other information, which worried advocates for press freedom and civil liberties.

But the Justice Department under Obama decided against bringing an espionage charge against Assange, seeing no way to draw a clear legal line between what he did — publish state secrets — and what news organizations reporting on national security often do.

Judges, they feared, might throw out a prosecution on grounds that the case violated the 1st Amendment.

After Trump took office, however, he made clear that he wanted prosecutors to go further.

In April, the Justice Department announced an indictment of Assange, but to the relief of civil liberties and press-freedom advocates, those charges narrowly accused him only of hacking a Pentagon computer network — not a crime involving publishing. For a few weeks, it seemed the Assange prosecution might avoid a battle over how much the 1st Amendment protects.

But as Chris Megerian reported, Thursday’s announcement of 17 new charges against Assange dispelled any such relief.

Justice Department officials insisted, as John Demers, the department’s top national security official said, that “the department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy. It is not and has never been the department’s policy to target them for reporting.”

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And the indictment tried to draw a line by emphasizing a small group of documents — among the hundreds of thousands Assange published — that contained the names of people who had worked with the U.S. in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, China and Syria.

WikiLeaks’ publication of those documents put those people’s lives at risk, prosecutors said.

Over the years, however, government officials have often told editors and reporters at news organizations, including The Los Angeles Times, that publication of one national security story or another might put people’s lives at risk. How — if at all — prosecutors will try to draw a legal distinction between what Assange did and what news organizations frequently do in reporting on government activities remains unclear.

For Trump, of course, that lack of clarity may be a feature, not a bug. He often rails against the press as “enemies of the people,” and, as Doyle McManus recently wrote, his administration has sharply cut back on releasing information, even of a routine nature.

If the Assange prosecution causes some reporters to pull back in aggressively pursuing government secrets, from Trump’s standpoint, that’s probably all to the good.

BUILDUP IN THE MIDEAST

Speaking of national security information, David Cloud reported that the Pentagon has asked Trump to send several thousand more troops to the Mideast amid rising tensions with Iran.

It’s unclear whether Trump has approved the new deployment. As hawkish aides, led by national security advisor John Bolton, loudly talk about military options against Iran, Trump has gone back and forth. Sunday, for example, he issued new threats. Other days, he spreads word that he’s against a new Middle East war.

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Security analysts warn that with both sides stepping up their military preparations, and with little communication between Tehran and Washington, the two countries could easily blunder into a fight even if neither government actually wants one.

NEW FRONT FOR PARDONS — ALLEGED WAR CRIMES

Commentators on Fox News and other conservative media outlets have urged Trump to pardon several U.S. service members accused of war crimes — a step he may take over the Memorial Day weekend.

As Cloud reported, that’s caused an unusually public rebellion among senior active and retired military officers.

“The wholesale pardon of U.S. service members accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the law of armed conflict seriously,” retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a tweet Tuesday. “Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”

Among those under consideration for a pardon is Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL awaiting court-martial on charges that he shot unarmed civilians and stabbed a teenage Islamic State fighter in Iraq in 2017.

WEEKEND IN JAPAN

Trump plans to travel to Japan this weekend for a trip that will allow him to be the first foreign head of state to visit the new Emperor Naruhito, who was crowned late last month.

As Noah Bierman wrote, the trip will be heavy on sumo and symbolism but will also offer a chance for Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to try to reduce tensions that have ratcheted up with Trump’s moves to raise tariffs on imports.

BLOWING UP INFRASTRUCTURE WEEK

Last month, Trump met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer and said they had reached agreement on a $2-trillion plan to rebuild and upgrade roads, bridges, airports and other parts of the country’s infrastructure.

Both at the White House and Capitol Hill, many were skeptical the deal would stick, especially because Republicans won’t support new taxes to pay for any such plan.

Wednesday, when Pelosi and Schumer returned to the White House for a follow-up meeting, Trump abruptly blew up the talks, Eli Stokols and Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

Trump said Pelosi had angered him by saying he was involved in a “cover-up.”

“I don’t do cover-ups,” he said in a White House news conference after he walked out of the meeting. Pelosi accused him of staging a “temper tantrum.”

The barbed accusations came against a background of steadily rising tensions. As Haberkorn wrote, Pelosi has been trying to keep impeachment talk in check, but support has increased among Democratic lawmakers for at least starting a formal inquiry into whether grounds for impeachment exist.

One factor in that increased support has been White House efforts to block congressional investigations. The latest example came this week as Trump blocked testimony from his former White House counsel, Don McGahn.

Pelosi has insisted that impeachment would be too divisive unless it has bipartisan support. So far, only one Republican lawmaker has publicly said that grounds for impeachment exist. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan took on that lonely position recently, and Trump quickly lashed out at him, as Laura King reported.

SOME PROGRESS ON CAPITOL HILL

It often seems that amid the shouting, Congress has gotten nothing done. There’s some truth to that — at this point, the passage of even routine measures generates headlines.

Thursday, the Senate reached a deal on disaster aid. The bill, which passed overwhelmingly, will provide help to California efforts to rebuild after the most recent wildfires, Puerto Rico’s recovery from hurricanes and other similar needs across the country. The House, which already passed a version, could give final approval as early as today.

The key to getting the bill through Congress was that Trump agreed to drop the idea of including money for border security.

Another area of potential agreement — surprise medical bills. As Haberkorn reported, even members of Congress have been hit with bills they didn’t expect, and a measure to protect consumers has gained support on both sides.

WHAT’S THAT COST?

As Democratic presidential hopefuls roll out their policies, they’ve tried to insist that all the new programs could be paid for solely with new taxes on the rich.

But as Evan Halper reported, the arithmetic doesn’t work. Even many liberal economists say the candidates have been way too optimistic about how much money they could get by measures such as a new tax on big fortunes.

But the fact that Republicans pushed through a huge tax cut in 2017 with no plan to pay for it has emboldened Democrats, who ask why they should be the only ones who worry about fiscal responsibility.

Sen. Kamala Harris offered a new proposal this week that would toughen penalties on employers who underpay women, Michael Finnegan reported.

And Mark Barabak looked at one of the most basic parts of a presidential campaign — the logos. What’s in a name? he asked. Turns out quite a bit.

STEALING FROM STORMY?

Michael Avenatti faces yet more criminal charges, Finnegan reported. This time, prosecutors have accused him of stealing money from his highest-profile client, Stormy Daniels. As with previous charges, the prosecutors allege that Avenatti diverted money from his client to pay for his lavish lifestyle.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidlauter


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