Almost immediately after Donald Trump’s inauguration, newly installed White House officials seemed eager to share their bizarre experiences with the press. The president’s outrage about the leaks from his own team was obvious.
He did not, however, know quite what to say about them. In February 2017, during an appearance at CPAC, Trump told conservative activists that the leaks aren’t real; they’re just made-up quotes from unethical and dishonest journalists. In the same speech, the president went on to say that he was furious that officials from his own team leaked real, sensitive information.
How did Trump reconcile the contradiction? By all appearances, he didn’t seem to understand that the contradiction existed.
More than a year later, the president is still struggling, as a tweet from yesterday afternoon helped prove.
“The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”
So, the leaks are not a problem, and they are a problem. They are invented, and they are real. The leakers don’t really exist, and they very much exist.
Trump’s had a year and a half to figure this out, and as of yesterday afternoon, those efforts don’t appear to be going well.
Of course, we know the impetus for this latest Trump World anxiety. Last week, during a meeting on Gina Haspel’s nomination to lead the CIA, a White House official mocked Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) failing health, deeming his concerns about Haspel irrelevant because “he’s dying anyway.” Kelly Sadler, the White House’s director of surrogate and coalitions outreach, has not yet issued any kind of public apology.
But as the controversy grew over the incident, Trump World decided the real problem wasn’t Sadler’s comment, but rather, the fact that the public learned about Sadler’s comment. What was leaked, the president’s aides said, was less important than the fact that the quote was leaked at all.
And while I don’t think this effort to change the subject has been especially successful, there’s been some increased reflection on why so many members of Team Trump have been eager to let the world know about behind-the-scenes developments.
Axios yesterday published some notable perspectives:
“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”
“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,” the current White House official added.
“The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”
“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.”
The level of dysfunction in the Trump White House is difficult to overstate.