WASHINGTON â€” A historic clash may be erupting between the intelligence apparatus of the United States and the country's democratically elected president, with the high-level intrigue linked to questions about the Donald Trump campaign's ties with Russia.
The president announced Thursday that he's instructed the Justice Department to examine leaks to the media that have damaged his administration â€” including several based on private communications with foreign governments.
Intercepted phone calls with Russia's ambassador, for instance, led to the firing of Trump's national security adviser this week. The president lamented the firing, insisting Michael Flynn had done nothing wrong in reassuring Russia about economic sanctions.
The president told a news conference that the reason he axed the senior military man was that Flynn later mischaracterized those interactions to Vice-President Mike Pence. Now he wants to go after the leakers.
"We're gonna find the leakers," Trump said. "They're gonna pay a big price."
Now Trump's first choice to replace Flynn doesn't want the job. Senior U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Vice Admiral Robert Harward had rejected an offer to be Trump's new national security adviser.
That came on the same day the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence agencies are withholding sensitive information from Trump over fear it might wind up being handed over to foreign actors; Trump called the story disgraceful, and intelligence officials denied it.
It's not clear whether the leaks are coming from intelligence officials or civil servants hostile to Trump. One White House source told Trump-friendly Breitbart News there are enemies throughout the bureaucracy: "They're hiding like sleeper cells everywhere."
On top of calling in the Justice Department, there could be more measures.
Trump has confirmed he's considering bringing in a Wall Street power broker, known as a corporate wrecking ball for reforming unprofitable businesses, to come in and fix the intelligence services.
He said he's weighing an offer from Cerberus founder Steven Feinberg to review them. But he said he hopes to avoid that, as his own national-security team takes its place including newly confirmed CIA boss Mike Pompeo.
''I hope that we'll be able to straighten that out without using anybody else,'' he said. "Those are criminal leaks."
The president even scolded the press for writing about material gained illegally, suggesting most major media outlets should be ashamed of themselves.
He then brushed off a glaring contradiction.
Every day in the home stretch of the election, Trump made use of illegally obtained material, stolen by hackers from Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, allegedly tied to Russian intelligence, and posted onto the site Wikileaks.
He said during the campaign: ''I love Wikileaks.'' He even jokingly urged the Russians to hack Clinton's emails. But that was different, Trump said â€” Wikileaks wasn't publishing classified U.S. material.
Trump has been dogged since the summer by questions about illicit ties with Russia.
His campaign chair Paul Manafort quit after reports about financial and personal relations with pro-Putin politicians in Ukraine and Russia. His foreign-policy adviser Carter Page quit after similar reports.
Now there are more reports â€” about U.S. authorities investigating whether Trump's team was communicating with Russian intelligence during the campaign.
Asked whether members of his team were communicating with the Russian government during the campaign, Trump said he, personally, hadn't â€” but he left himself some wiggle room with respect to whether others had.
"Nobody that I know of," he said, adding later, "To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with."
Trump chafed when a reporter pressed him on that issue: "How many times do I have to answer this question?"
The president was far more enthusiastic in discussing the leaks.
He expressed frustration about having phone calls with world leaders, from Mexico and Australia, then seeing unflattering details dribble into the press. He wondered whether that kind of reporting will happen when he's talking about more dangerous files â€” involving North Korea and the Middle East.
"Honestly, I was really, really surprised," he said.
Democrats say that if a rift is growing between the country's political leaders and security apparatus, it's not the intelligence community's fault. Ed Markey, a Democrat on the Senate foreign-relations committee, says Trump can blame himself.
''Let's be honest: The national security apparatus in our country is in chaos. It's in disarray. We don't have the president praising the national intelligence community for finding that there could have been a compromise of our election â€” (and) potentially a compromise of the sanctions... upon Russia,'' he told MSNBC.
''Instead President Trump is mad at the information being put out into the public domain.''
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press