Trump Is Attacking the First Amendment. Not Enough Progressives Are Pushing Back.

Julian Assange’s prosecution is being used as a test case to unravel First Amendment protections that the press has long taken for granted. Yet some important left-wing elected officials aren’t fighting back.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court in a security van after being sentenced on May 1, 2019 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty Images

A month ago, when much of the political establishment was celebrating the arrest of Julian Assange and his indictment by the Trump administration, ostensibly for the crime of hacking, many prominent left-wing figures warned against this behavior. While Assange had seemingly been charged with committing a narrow crime, voices on the left warned that, given the nature of the Trump administration and the actual details of the indictment, there was a good chance it was simply a prelude to a more explicit assault on the First Amendment later on.

To what should be no one’s surprise, that’s exactly what has happened, with the Trump Justice Department indicting Assange last week on seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act, the antiquated World War I-era law originally enacted to prevent military secrets from being passed on to an enemy power, but used predominantly by Obama and Trump to shut down unflattering leaks about their administrations. As the indictment makes clear, there’s no beating around the bush: Assange’s crime, in the eyes of the Justice Department, was soliciting and publishing information the US government deemed secret.

The Trump administration is now attempting to fulfill one of the national security state’s most cherished goals: to muzzle the free press on national security issues. America’s absolutist view of free speech has come under a lot of criticism in recent years, but it has left the US media uniquely powerful and privileged compared to its counterparts in other countries. In the UK, for instance, former prime minister Tony Blair blocked the publication of a five-page memo in 2005 that allegedly showed everyone’s new favorite president George W. Bush musing about bombing Al Jazeera studios around the Middle East, something Blair accomplished by threatening to prosecute news outlets under the country’s Official Secrets Act. The memo still hasn’t seen the light of day.

The acolytes of the US security state have long held queasy fantasies about giving similar powers to the US government. Nixon tried to set that precedent when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, but that case was thrown out without a ruling due to that administration’s bungling criminality. During the Obama administration, there were certainly members of the permanent national security bureaucracy who hoped the former president would prosecute WikiLeaks for that very reason — though the president, thankfully, eventually stepped away from the precipice. (Not that Obama deserves much credit; his overzealous prosecution even of leaks deemed “nothing burgers” by his own administration set the stage for much worse under less restrained leadership.”)

Which is where we are now, with the Trump administration attempting to finally put someone in prison for the crime of asking for and publishing secret information. Not all secret information, of course; certain officials will still be permitted to anonymously leak secrets that they want revealed for their own ends, or violate restrictions on classified information if it’ll mean a funny gag at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner.

Whether you like or loathe Assange is irrelevant. The very fact that he’s so widely hated across the political spectrum, for very different reasons, is what makes the Trump administration’s job so easy as it attempts to clamp down on the press.

Governments seeking to repress basic rights typically choose unsympathetic, even repugnant individuals as test cases to establish rights-narrowing precedents, because they calculate that a target’s odiousness, real or perceived, will make it less likely that anyone will go to bat for them. Liberals and the Left understood this during the Bush era, when the pursuit of murderous terrorists was the fulcrum that right-wing administration used to introduce a host of measures undermining ordinary Americans’ civil liberties. They understand it today as the Republican Party fixates on statistically insignificant criminality by undocumented people to justify cracking down on millions of other migrants.

And make no mistake, Assange’s successful prosecution will have broad, frightening consequences for press freedom. Under the standards in this indictment, the New York Times could have been prosecuted for publishing the Pentagon Papers, revealing the government’s illegal counter-intelligence operations against protesters in the 1970s, or reporting on Bush’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. The Guardian could have been put on trial for its reporting on mass surveillance based on Edward Snowden’s leaks. The Intercept’s editorial team could face prison time for its reports on subjects like drone warfare.

Or just think of any of the countless classified leaks published or reported on by newspapers that have inconvenienced Trump: the intelligence agency report about 2016 Russian interference; Reality Winner’s leak about Russian hacking of voting systems; the memo instructing intelligence analysts to dumb things down for the president; even the recent reports about Trump’s finances based on confidential information about his tax returns. None of these disclosures, or the parade of other classified information that has politically damaged Trump and provided a window into the workings of his administration, would happen in a world where Julian Assange is successfully prosecuted. And it won’t stop at national borders, either. If they succeed with Assange, anyone anywhere in the world who publishes material deemed secret by the US government could end up being dragged before a court in the US.

This should be a call to arms for the well-meaning but often incoherent anti-Trump coalition of liberals, centrists and members of the US media, who tend to despise both Trump and Assange in roughly equal measure.

They’ve spent years justly warning about Trump’s authoritarian menace and celebrating the role of journalists in protecting democracy. They’ve gushed over Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which portrayed journalists soliciting and then publishing top secret government documents, and fretted over Trump’s verbal abuse and disparagement of journalists. They’ve adopted slogans like “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and erupted in outrage when Trump suspended CNN anchor Jim Acosta’s CNN press pass. This is all good. But it means nothing if they don’t push back now, as Trump prepares to truly take aim at the First Amendment.

Fortunately, there appears to have been some recognition of the threatening nature of Assange’s indictment among media that has been relatively and even openly hostile to him. Outlets like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and even Rachel Maddow have cast this move as an assault on the free press. (Not so at the National Review, where Kevin Williamson suggests prosecuting journalists for such actions is in fact legitimate, a fitting summary of the supposedly “never Trump” mindset of the “mainstream” right.)

The response from left-wing elected officials has left something to be desired, by contrast.

Though it’s encouraging that presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tulsi Gabbard have spoken out against the indictment, as it stands, not a single one of the bold new left-wing political figures in Congress have: not Rashida Tlaib, not Ilhan Omar, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Is there political risk here in upsetting a Democratic base that rabidly despises Assange for helping Trump in 2016? Undoubtedly. But that’s why progressives have always pointed out that the defense of an individual’s rights has nothing to do with who they are as a person. Even those of us who are deeply troubled and repulsed by the sexual assault allegations against him can still oppose Assange’s prosecution — just like you can argue against torturing a terrorist, or defend a felon’s right to vote even if they committed a horrific crime.

The public must understand that the Assange prosecution is not about Assange, but about the Trump administration’s authoritarian inclinations and hostility to the press. This is precisely the point that Sanders and Warren have made, along with Ron Wyden, a conventional, middle-of-the-road Democrat who is nonetheless a respected voice on these issues. Other left-of-center lawmakers should follow their lead, particularly those seen as part of the “Sanders-Warren wing of the party.”

People have feared a dangerous attack on the First Amendment from Trump since before he was inaugurated. Well, this is it. For three straight years we’ve been hearing about the “Resistance.” Now’s the time to actually resist.