Looking to stem the tide of bombshell news reports linking Russian operatives with associates of President Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies have taken the significant step of formally referring as many as six recent leaks to the Justice Department for criminal investigation, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Word of the criminal referrals comes as President Trump tries to use growing hostility toward the press as a means of making money for the Republican National Committee.
"Do your part to fight back against the media's attacks and deceptions," the president said Friday in a fundraising email blasted out by the RNC and obtained by ABC News. "They don’t care about the truth."
Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may issue a private memorandum to his entire workforce in the coming weeks, reinforcing department guidelines that govern when employees can engage with members of the media, according to Justice Department insiders.
For months, President Trump and key Republican lawmakers have been calling on the Justice Department to investigate who told reporters about classified information uncovered during the U.S. government's ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year's presidential election. But there's only one voice that can really prompt a Justice Department leak investigation: the U.S. intelligence community.
And now, according to sources familiar with the matter, U.S. intelligence agencies have officially asked the Justice Department to get to the bottom of "several" recent leaks. It’s unclear if the Justice Department has opened any cases so far.
Among the stories flagged to the Justice Department was The Washington Post's story in April disclosing that the FBI had obtained a secret order to intercept the communications of Trump adviser Carter Page, who a federal judge had secretly determined was likely acting as an agent of the Russian government. Many other exclusives from The Washington Post, The New York Times and similarly high-profile news outlets have also raised concerns among U.S. officials for their detailed descriptions of intercepted communications, another source said.
Last month, testifying to a Senate panel just days before he was fired as FBI director, James Comey refused to say whether the FBI or Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation into the "variety of leaks" tied to the ongoing Russia probe.
"Leaks are always a problem, but especially in the last three to six months," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Where there is a leak of classified information, the [relevant agency] makes a referral to the Department of Justice ... and then DOJ authorizes the opening of an investigation."
But, he said, "I don't want to confirm in an open setting whether there are any investigations open."
Not all referrals to the Justice Department lead to criminal investigations -- and only a fraction of criminal investigations lead to charges being filed.
Regardless, there is little doubt that The Washington Post's recent reporting on potential ties between Trump associates and elements of the Russian government has had significant -- even historical -- impact.
In February, The Washington Post broke the news that -- despite public statements to the contrary -- President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had in fact secretly discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the United States before the Trump team took office.
Four days later, The Washington Post first reported that then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House that Flynn was misleading senior administration officials and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Flynn was forced to resign just hours later.
"Late in the day” -- after The Washington Post report -- President Trump "made a determination" that Flynn had to be fired, White House spokesman Sean Spicer recounted to reporters the following day.
Reports from The Washington Post and The New York Times were cited repeatedly at a much-anticipated House Intelligence Committee hearing in March, when National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and then-FBI Director Comey detailed how the Russian government tried to infiltrate American democracy. The Washington Post alone was cited by name 15 times.
President Trump, however, has dismissed all the reporting as "fake news" pushed by "the real opposition."
"This is a fight we can't afford to lose," the president wrote in his fundraising email last week. "The future of America hangs in the balance. Our country is at stake."
One U.S. intelligence official, however, joked that the president's pitch amounted to this: "Do you like us colluding with the Russians? Send a donation!"