Politics & Policy

The Long, Ugly History of Republican-Targeting Anonymous Leaks

(Dreamstime image: Esviesa)
There’s a reason many on the right see anonymous leaks as unethical.

Susanne Craig, a New York Times Metro reporter, wrote over the weekend that she received a manila envelope on September 23 — with a New York City postmark and a Trump Tower return address — containing three pages from Donald Trump’s 1995 state tax filings. Craig was able to verify the authenticity of the New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey tax records by talking to Trump’s accountant at the time, but by her own account, she does not know who sent them to her.

It’s probable that the leaker was someone in Trump’s orbit or someone connected to his wife at the time, Marla Maples, who signed the documents and presumably had copies of them. But until the source comes forward, it is impossible to rule out a more insidious scenario: that individuals in the respective state tax agencies chose to reveal Trump’s confidential information without his permission.

Journalists who tsk-tsk the general public’s suspicion and reflexive distrust of the media should ask themselves how often confidential, legally protected documents embarrassing to prominent Democrats get anonymously leaked and published by the press. Because it seems to happen to Republican office-seekers about once every election cycle.

Back in 1999, George W. Bush’s Yale transcripts were leaked to The New Yorker.

In 2008, Helen Jones-Kelley, director of Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services, checked state computer systems for information on Toledo-area resident Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber,” who had become something of a folk hero on the right for skeptically questioning Democratic nominee Barack Obama and spurring him to characterize his economic plan in redistributionist terms. Jones-Kelley was given one month’s unpaid leave for her violation of privacy regulations.

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In 2009, an unidentified staffer in the U.S. Attorney’s office “accidentally” mailed the Washington Post a copy of a defense-sentencing memorandum filed under seal, alleging financial misdeeds by former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele. At the time, Steele had just been elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was never indicted and nothing of substance ever came from the Justice Department’s investigation, but the damage was done. The Post ran the front-page headline “Steele Campaign Spending Questioned.”

In 2011, Rick Perry’s college transcripts were leaked to the Huffington Post.

In 2012, the National Organization for Marriage’s tax records were published by the Human Rights Campaign., and the NOM accused the Internal Revenue Service of leaking the information. In 2014, the IRS agreed to pay the group $50,000 to settle a lawsuit over claims the agency had improperly disclosed confidential tax information.

Earlier this year, a jury found that Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane leaked confidential investigative material to a Philadelphia newspaper to get revenge on a political enemy.

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Have there been leaks of information damaging to Democratic lawmakers? Sure, on occasion. Back in 1998, a judge ruled prosecutors in Kenneth Starr’s office leaked grand jury information during the investigation of Bill Clinton. And, of course, earlier this year WikiLeaks released a trove of internal e-mails belonging to the Democratic National Committee, apparently obtained by Russian hackers.

A significant number of Republicans think that the entire celebrated culture of political journalism that relies on anonymous leaks is corrupt and one-sided.

Yes, Republicans should be upset by the thought of hackers — possibly working for a hostile foreign government — breaking into the DNC’s servers and leaking their contents to influence the U.S. presidential election. But if journalists wonder why many on the right aren’t all that upset about it, this is why: A significant number of Republicans think the entire celebrated culture of political journalism that relies on anonymous leaks is corrupt and one-sided. They think a lot of people who have jobs that involve handling sensitive information are driven by a partisan passion to expose any information that could harm the GOP. They believe that university staff, court employees, prosecutors, IRS agents, and state employees put partisan loyalty ahead of any other oaths, rules, regulations, or laws. That perception may be an excessive generalization, but it’s not entirely unfounded, either.

Tax returns are probably the most insidious form of a leak, because everyone has to file them, and almost everyone prefers to keep the details of their financial life private. We don’t have the choice to opt out of giving all of our financial information to the government each year; we take it on faith that the IRS will do its duty and protect our privacy. Most of us avoid problems, but the examples of Bush, Perry, NOM, Steele, and Joe the Plumber are a cautionary tale: If you become enough of a headache to Democrats, then your confidential records become fair game.

#related#We may never know who leaked Trump’s tax documents. A rarely mentioned problem about anonymous sources is that you can’t rule out the potential source that would most undermine faith in the system. And faith in the system is circling the drain. In Sunday’s Times, reporter Craig urged more people to send her information, declaring, “when people are worried that anything sent by email will leave forensic fingerprints, ‘snail mail’ is a great way to communicate with us anonymously.”

Sure. But it’s also a great way to ensure no one is held accountable for breaking the law.