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.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Media, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But trump hires only the BEST people.




    5



    0
  2. Joe says:

    What follows below is a leak from that very intense meeting yesterday, according to five sources in the room

    The sad part was that this was a meeting between Sanders and four of her staffers.




    16



    0
  3. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Well, he certainly is adept at hiring people who are ready, willing, and able to rat him out.




    4



    0
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Joe: And if I recall correctly, there were 3 different sources. So 3 of the 5 people at the meeting leaked. I’d put even money down that Sanders was the first to leak.

    @CSK: “I hire only the BEST leakers, people who are like steel sieves and fishing nets! We don’t want water tight row boats! We get people of TITANIC capabilities!!!”




    5



    0
  5. MarkedMan says:

    @Joe: Joe, you win the internet today…




    3



    0
  6. MarkedMan says:

    Wait, is what Joe said actually true? That there were only five people in the room and all five of them commented to the press off the record? I had assumed it was a joke…




    2



    0
  7. MarkedMan says:

    BTW, Doug, can you start a thread on Trump’s overruling his own administration in order to let ZTE off the hook?




    6



    0
  8. CSK says:

    Trump has said numerous times that, back when he was running his sleazy operation out of Trump Tower, he liked having his employees at one another’s throats. Possibly he thought it ensured their loyalty to him.

    Slightly OT, but if you’re in the mood to weep with laughter, read this:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/breaking-from-trumps-doctors-most-remarkable-physical-specimen-of-all-time




    3



    0
  9. An Interested Party says:

    Since the Orange Blob doesn’t value loyalty and doesn’t show any fealty to anything, why should those who work for him be any different? Leading by example indeed…




    0



    0
  10. Kathy says:

    I wonder how much Mangolini himself leaks when he makes his infamous “executive time” calls in the evenings. Sure he doesn’t call reporters, but the people he leaks to might.




    1



    0
  11. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    According to The Daily Beast today, Trump and Hannity have a bedtime chat almost every night.




    2



    0
  12. Moosebreath says:

    In the words of Yes, Minister, the ship of state is the only one which leaks from the top.




    1



    0
  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy:

    Sure he doesn’t call reporters

    I’m pretty sure you are wrong about that. There have been a number of leaks sourced to a senior White House official which seems to be the President.




    2



    0
  14. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    According to The Daily Beast today, Trump and Hannity have a bedtime chat almost every night.

    There’s nothing odd in calling one’s boyfriend every night.




    5



    0
  15. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    Well, he certainly can’t decompress with Melania, since Trump himself has said they haven’t occupied the same bedroom since at least 2006.




    3



    0
  16. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    According to The Daily Beast today, Trump and Hannity have a bedtime chat almost every night.

    That rings true.

    But, if so, do you suppose the Orange Clown remembers it ten minutes later, never mind the next day?

    Trump the Moron has a Capt. Queeg vibe going, except Queeg had been competent at some point.




    0



    0
  17. Joe says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I had assumed it was a joke…

    I, too, assume my statement is a joke, but it would not surprise me a bit if it were actually – albeit accidentally – a true story.




    1



    0
  18. CSK says:

    The best I can gather is that there were 24 people at the meeting where Sadler made her remark, and several leaked it.

    When Sanders scolded her staff, at least five of them leaked the news of the scolding to the press.

    This is some tight ship they’re running over at 1600.




    4



    0
  19. Mister Bluster says:

    test




    0



    0
  20. KM says:

    Of course everybody leaks – there’s no real way to trace it back to them so the fear of getting caught is practically zlich. Think about it, if you were 100% certain there was at least one other rat in the room, you’d feel better about talking since there would be doubt about your specific guilt. Whistle-blowing is easy when you’re just another face in the crowd.

    As for this instance, nasty comments about dying people – even those you don’t like – tend to rub most folks wrong. It’s deeply cultural and extremely hard to overcome as evidenced by funerals and wakes full of people who don’t want to be there, couldn’t stand the deceased but keep their mouths shut but it’s rude AF otherwise. Most will not talk sh^t about deceased coworkers no matter how much they hated that guy and will always, ALWAYS check the lay of the land if they decide they need to vent. The leakers know that damn well since Sadler clearly didn’t bother to check if everyone in the room was on the same page. Maybe it was genuine respect for McCain, genuine respect for the cultural more or glee at knowing reporting this would make her look horrible, she didn’t gauge her audience properly. Then the boss they can’t stand wanders in and complains not about what they thought was the problem but that they had the never to snitch about bad behavior. Is it any surprise there was a rush to tattle on her as well?

    Memo to the WH staff: your co-workers hate you. All of them. There are no exceptions.
    There is no such thing as private or closed-door if you are not alone… and I wouldn’t even trust that. If you’re going to insist on being terrible people, they’re going to keep leaking it because they can’t stand you and are probably terrible people themselves. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Why, those looking to drop a dime on the jerk on desk over, of course!




    6



    0
  21. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK:

    Trump has said numerous times that, back when he was running his sleazy operation out of Trump Tower, he liked having his employees at one another’s throats. Possibly he thought it ensured their loyalty to him.

    At the risk of triggering an I-forget-whose-name law violation, Hitler is reputed to have done the same thing to maintain control.




    0



    0