Donald Trump has called the news media the "enemy of the people," but the reality is the press is doing its job when it holds the power of the executive branch accountable.

The Trump administration continues to attack the legitimacy of the media, and the GOP tries to shift attention away from the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia by focusing instead on leaks about those ties to the media.

Nevertheless, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) focused on an essential truth during the Senate hearing Monday on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election:

BLUMENTHAL: Let me just close by asking you — my colleague Senator Franken made reference to warnings given to the, um, given by President Obama to then-President-elect Trump about hiring Michael Flynn.

That is a public report from The New York Times, in fact, of today, which I ask to be entered into the record. And I also ask to be entered into the record, the February 9th report from The Washington Post, I believe there has been a reference to it.

Without that published report, and without the free press telling us a lot of what went on, Michael Flynn might still be sitting in the White House as national security adviser, because by January 30th, you were forced to resign, correct? You were fired.

YATES: Yes, I was fired.

During the hearing, and previous hearings related to the Trump-Russia investigation, Republicans have often focused on leaks rather than the underlying subject, in an apparent attempt to reinforce the White House narrative that the media cannot be trusted.

During his testimony, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gently chastised Republican senators for their misguided focus on leaks, saying, “The transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process, and what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy.”

During questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-LA), Clapper drew laughter from observers when he explained what constitutes a leak:

KENNEDY: OK. General Clapper, have you ever leaked information, classified or unclassified, to a member of the press?

CLAPPER: Not wittingly or knowingly, as I said in my statement.

KENNEDY: Classified or unclassified?

CLAPPER: Well, unclassified is not leaking. (laughter)

While the exchange was humorous, Clapper made an important distinction that the White House and GOP try to blur.

While Trump has no patience for critical media coverage — of which there is plenty — there is nothing criminal about the press exercising its constitutional right to inform the electorate about its own government. It is only because of the free press that we learned of the threat to national security that Flynn posed with his vulnerability to Russian blackmail.

And, as Blumenthal noted, it is only because of the free press that Flynn was ultimately, though belatedly, fired.

While Trump and his fellow Republicans might like to make that kind of reporting a crime, the First Amendment stands in their way. As well it should.