All presidential administrations have to deal with leaks, but the Trump administration has become legendary for its Niagara Falls of leaks. Leaks are such a problem that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, after a White House aid’s comment about John McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel’s nomination for CIA director not mattering because he is “dying anyway” was leaked to the press, in a Friday meeting of the White House communications team furiously scolded the attendees about the leak. She angrily stated, “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting.”
So the source who promptly leaked that conversation to ABC News says.
Jonathon Swan, a reporter from Axios who covers the Trump administration and has benefited from the sieve like atmosphere at the White House, asked his best White House sources why they leak and shared their answers in a recent article.
According to a current White House official who spoke to Swan, leaks fall into two categories: Personal vendettas and a desire to ensure what is going on in the White House is known.
Stephen Hess, a former White House staffer who developed a typology of leaks, calls the vendetta type the official spoke of an “animus” leak. John Kelly has experienced this in the leaks about his behavior during the Rob Porter domestic abuse scandal. People he has clashed with wanted to lower his status and influence with the President by leaking about him.
One of the White House officials Swan spoke to talked about the atmosphere in the White House that leads to this kind of leak.
“Otherwise,” the official added, “you have to realize that working here is kind of like being in a never-ending ‘Mexican Standoff.’ Everyone has guns (leaks) pointed at each other and it’s only a matter of time before someone shoots. There’s rarely a peaceful conclusion so you might as well shoot first.”
In a relatively small pool of staff, leaking is dangerous and one official told Swan, “To cover my tracks, I usually pay attention to other staffers’ idioms and use that in my background quotes. That throws the scent off me.”
A more noble, perhaps, reason is that the management in the White House is so poor and the chaos so great that those inside want those on the outside to know what is happening. They fall in the category of the “whistle blower” leak. For instance, the sources who leaked that Sanders seemed more upset about the leak about the callous comment about McCain than the callous comment itself wanted that fact to be known to the public.
In March, a stunning leak was reported by the Washington Post after President Trump had casually mentioned to reporters that he congratulated Vladimir Putin on his reelection. Someone from a small pool of people entrusted with national security secrets leaked that Trump had ignored the instructions of his national security advisers who had written “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” on his briefing materials. A possible motive for this leak was to alert the public that, even while being investigated for his relationship with Russia, Donald Trump ignored his advisers.
One of Swan’s sources states that policy leaks are used to bring attention to facts that are being ignored. Many White House staffers know that, if they have lost a policy battle, the best way to get back in the fight is to put it in the public spotlight. Donald Trump is swayed by “ratings” and his people know public blowback is an effective way to kill a decision.
Even more ironic in the discussion of leaks is the fact that Donald Trump is accused of being a leaker himself, as People has reported.
Ronald Kessler claims in his new book, The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game, that Trump has a number of journalists he frequently contacts, and leaks to on the condition that he be identified only as one of his own unnamed staff members.
“Trump phones Maggie Haberman of the New York Times directly, as well as Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, and Jonathan Swan of Axios, feeding them stories attributed to ‘a senior White House official,’ creating the impression the White House leaks even more than it already does,” Kessler writes. “In other cases, the media has picked up reports on what Trump himself has said to his friends.”
Jonathon Swan ends his article by issuing an invitation to any would be leakers to give him a call – not that an invitation to leak is necessary in this administration.
Why It Matters
Any organization is only as good as its leadership. The Trump White House is under siege and morale is reported to be low. Staffers are dealing with a boss of mercurial temperament and policy is often decided by the last person who speaks to the President about any given issue. The Special Counsel investigation looms large as individuals are called in to be questioned and everyone wonders who is “flipping”.
The ever growing list of firings and resignations encourages paranoia and an atmosphere of leaks becomes a self perpetuating cycle. An organization that is described as feeling like a “never-ending Mexican stand off” is an organization that has fundamental problems.
The question becomes, for the public, what do we need to know from within an administration? Leaks, unless of classified materials, are not illegal. Bad form, in some cases, yes, but they are not illegal. And the leaks that make an administration look bad or reveal something serious about a president are the ones the public probably needs to know, regardless of party affiliation.
Sanders is not wrong when she maintains problems should be dealt with internally rather than leaked to the press. But that it isn’t is an organizational failure that is the product of a boss who is mercurial and more accustomed to a reality show board room than adhering to the idea that “the buck stops here”, at the Resolute Desk which he sits behind.