White House Leakers Leak Why They’re Leaking
The Trump White House has leaked more than any in recent memory. Some of the leakers have explained what motivates them.
In the wake of the leak out of the White House last week about the “joke” that White House Aide Kelly Sadler told about John McCain dying that has led to widespread condemnation, the primary response from the White House has been to complain about the leak rather than to apologize for the remark or give any indication that Sadler will either be dismissed or disciplined for a “joke” that any decent person would agree was both inappropriate and offensive. The best example of this can be seen in the staff meeting that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders held on Friday, the contents of which, of course, was quickly leaked to the press:
At yesterday’s meeting of the White House communications team — in the wake of a leak from the prior meeting of a callous remark about John McCain’s brain cancer — a visibly upset and furious Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told the group: “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting,” according to a source in the room.
Sanders’ prediction came true. What follows below is a leak from that very intense meeting yesterday, according to five sources in the room. The broad outlines of this meeting were first reported by ABC News
Why this matters: The White House communications and press team has been beset by leaks. This last one appears to have crossed a line, and several people in the room on Friday told me they now walk into meetings knowing they can’t trust their own colleagues. In big meetings, they feel inclined, now, to keep their mouths shut.
At one point, per a source in the room, White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp interjected with a word of support for Sadler:
A source close to Schlapp told me that “her point was that when one staff member is publicly targeted by other members of the staff, she thinks that’s inappropriate and the team should support staffers who are subjected to leaks.”
Sources in the room on Friday told me senior leaders on the press team spent more time focused on the fact that Sadler’s now-infamous comment had leaked, than that it was said in the first place.
In an emotional speech in the Roosevelt Room, Sanders lambasted the press and communications team for the leak:
- Kelly Sadler’s comment was inappropriate, she said, according to a staffer in the room, but that didn’t justify leaking it to the press.
- Sanders told the team that Thursday should have been a great day for the White House, especially with the historic photos of Trump welcoming the hostages released from North Korea.
- But instead, that was overcome by saturation cable TV coverage about Sadler’s comment. In Thursday’s meeting of the White House communications and press team, Sadler said “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,”in reference to McCain’s decision to oppose Trump’s CIA nominee Gina Haspel. The Hill first reported the private remarks. Since then, everyone from McCain’s family to members of Congress to former Vice President Joe Biden has condemned the remark.
A source in the room for Friday’s meeting, defending Sanders, told me she made a point of immediately saying Sadler’s comment was wrong but her point was that these issues should be litigated internally and airing grievances through the press inflicts immense damage on the White House.
That report came from Axios, which has been one of the best sources of information about what’s going on inside the White House thanks to leaks, although other press outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, as well as CNN and MSNBC have also had their own fair share of leaks from White House insiders over the past sixteen months. Given that, it’s more than appropriate I suppose that Axios also ended up being the news outlet that many of these same leakers turned to explain why they are leaking the content of insider information from the West Wing:
The big picture: The leaks come in all shapes and sizes: small leaks, real-time leaks, weaponized leaks, historical leaks. Sensitive Oval Office conversations have leaked, and so have talks in cabinet meetings and the Situation Room. You name it, they leak it.
- My colleague Mike Allen, who has spent nearly 20 years covering the White House, says we learn more about what’s going on inside the Trump White House in a week than we did in a year of the George W. Bush presidency.
- This White House leaks so much that meetings called to bemoan leaks begin with acknowledgement the bemoaning will be leaked, which is promptly leaked…by several leakers in a smallish room.
Why does this White House leak like it’s going out of style? I reached out to some of the Trump administration’s most prolific leakers — people who have been wonderful sources to me (and, I assume, plenty of other reporters) — to get them to explain the draw.
- “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.”
A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.
- Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said
- “Bad managers almost always breed an unhappy workplace, which ultimately results in pervasive leaking,” the former official added. “And there has been plenty of all those things inside this White House. Some people use leaking to settle personal scores, or even worse to attack the President, but for me it was always to make a point about something that I felt was being unjustly ignored by others.”
There’s nothing new about leaks from government sources, of course. It’s an institution that is as old as the city itself and it has only become more prevalent in the wake of the expansion of media outlets out of the world of television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. The practice became more prevalent as mass media began to take shape in the United States and even more so with the rise of electronic communications that allowed people working in the West Wing to stay in contact with journalists without leaving a trace on the White House phone or email system. To some extent, the lid was kept on leaking for much of the period between the end of World War II and Watergate due to the fact that the press that covered the White House maintained a far less confrontational posture toward the incumbent Administration than is true today. Once Watergate happened, though, that relationship was forever changed and the White House staff quickly became the source of not just Washington gossip that usually stayed within the halls of government and the bars and restaurants where government officials and staffers continue to mingle after work and on the weekends.
There are, of course, leaks that should be cause for concern. At the top of this list, of course, are leaks of classified material or leaks that could put American military and diplomatic personnel in dangerous parts of the world at risk. Indeed, leaking such information is considered a serious criminal offense, especially if it includes classified information. Additionally, leaking information from inside the West Wing arguably has an impact on White House operations in that it brings into question just how much co-workers can trust each other. Leaking information like this though is not necessarily illegal even though it may be problematic. Additionally, there comes a point at which the American public’s right to know what’s going on inside their government.
The Trump Administration is hardly the first Administration that has had to deal with leaks, of course, but it’s fair to say that the sheer volume of leaks has become so much larger since Inauguration Day 2017 that hardly a day goes by that there isn’t something being reported attributed to a “senior government official,” a “source close to the President,” or a “senior White House official.” regarding everything from internal debates about Administration policy to details about infighting inside the Administration and reports about insults directed at the President from persons such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chief of Staff John Kelly. From the beginning, one of the pastimes of political social media has been to take the latest leaks from inside the Administration and try to figure out who the leaker(s) might be. The list of suspects has included pretty much everyone who has made their way through the White House since the beginning. The names that have been mentioned should be familiar, and they’ve included people such as former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former, well, whatever she did for Trump Omarosa Manigault, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and former Senior Adviser Steve Bannon. The fact that the leaks have continued even after each of these people left the White House has made clear that, at the very least, they were not the only person talking to the press off the record. Among the names of people who are still have been named as potential leakers, one of the most prominent have been Kellyanne Conway, and even Presidential Son-In-Law Jared Kushner and First Daughter Ivanka Trump, both of whom are believed to have been behind many of the most incendiary leaks about the people they’ve been at odds with, such as Bannon.
What the Axios report makes clear, though, and what should be evident from the sheer volume of leaks that have come from this White House, is that there is far more than one leaker in the White House and that the leaks are coming from such a wide variety of sources inside the White House and that their reasons for leaking are as varied as the sources themselves. In the case of the leak of the Sadler “joke,” it’s likely that the leak came from some of the young members of the White House Communications Office staff, many of whom were apparently pretty shocked by the comment even as people like Mercedes Schlapp, who was reportedly deeply offended by the rather tame jokes that Michelle Wolf told at the White House Correspondents Dinner last months, defends Sadler despite what she said. The reasons for doing so, well. the Axios reports make that clear. What’s also clear is that the leaks from this White House are going to continue for the foreseeable future no matter how many emotional speeches Sarah Huckabee Sanders gives to her staff.