Historians will tell you that Adolf Hitler was not plagued by leakers and anonymous sources within his government. Joseph Goebbels did not routinely race to the Frankfurter Zeitung to plant embarrassing or inconvenient information about the boss. Stalin, likewise, didn’t rail against anonymous saboteurs within his inner circle. Well, maybe he did now that I think about it, but he usually allayed such concerns by having those people killed or sent to the Gulag. But he didn’t kill them for leaking to the press, because there was no press in any meaningful sense to leak to.
In other words, for the people who seem to think that Donald Trump is an authoritarian tyrant, the fact that his administration has been plagued by leaks and anonymous sources talking out of school should be oddly reassuring.
At the same time, the roaring torrent of leaks from the White House is extremely dismaying for many Trump supporters, starting with Trump himself. His decision to fire FBI director James Comey was reportedly driven in part by his belief that Comey wasn’t doing more to hunt down leakers.
In some instances, Trump is right to be angry. The leaking of classified information, including transcripts of his conversations with foreign leaders, is illegal and dangerous.
But in other cases, Trump’s anger is aimed at members of his own staff and probably his own family, who use the media to undermine competitors in the administration. Senior adviser Steve Bannon uses his old website, Breitbart.com, to throw brickbats at his enemies. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a sort of prince regent in the Trump administration, is widely believed to use MSNBC’s Morning Joe for similar purposes.
The whole spectacle is actually pretty hilarious. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump thundered in a speech in February. “Let their name be put out there.” A few weeks later, Trump met in the Oval Office with news anchors who attributed his comments to a “senior administration official.” Indeed, the president frequently calls reporters — Americans he describes as “enemies of the people” — on “background,” doling out dollops of “anonymous” information.
Of course, that’s not new. All presidents do it. And all administrations give the press information that’s “not for attribution.”
What’s new in this White House is not the phenomenon of leaking but the scope and nature of it. After every meeting, participants race to their phones to put their anonymous spin on what happened. The reports read like parody. The Washington Post’s in-depth story on the Comey firing was based on “the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans.”
On Twitter it is common to see people dismiss any inconvenient leak as “fake news” — the president’s favorite term for any inconvenient or unflattering coverage. What seems lost on his knee-jerk defenders is that these leaks are coming from the president’s own handpicked team. I’ve gotten calls from members of the administration on background and I’m not even a political reporter, never mind a particularly sympathetic columnist.
What explains it? Beyond the normal messaging, there are several answers. Some reporters I’ve talked to note that few people in the Trump White House have much experience working in a White House, contributing to the shocking lack of internal discipline and clear lines of authority.
Some reporters tell me it’s simply “[posterior]-covering.” Maintaining good relationships with the press is an insurance policy. It’s always useful to have friends in the media, particularly if an administration goes off the rails. Being able to tell reporters, “Well, you know it wasn’t me” when stuff hits the fan could save your career. Another explanation is that this kind of palace-intrigue reporting has become a staple of the new media climate.
All these explanations are probably true. But I think the problem ultimately goes back to the president himself. He thrives on drama, particularly drama he creates. He cares about, and monitors, media coverage like no president in American history. Trump likes to pit subordinates against each other, which encourages staffers to be free agents. This dynamic is exacerbated by his glandular zigzagging on policies and his failure to provide a consistent philosophical or policy agenda beyond “Make the boss look good.” In short, he values loyalty above all else but offers few incentives for it.