Throughout the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump assured Americans that if he were to become president, he would only hire “the best people.” Trump’s ability to follow through on this promise has been undermined by a growing number of administration officials who have either resigned, been fired, been indicted or found themselves at the center of corruption allegations. To the president’s dismay, present White House staffers have also developed a keen taste for leaking information to the media at an unprecedented clip, most recently divulging that White House aide Kelly Sadler said that John McCain’s vote to confirm prospective CIA director Gina Haspel doesn’t matter because McCain “is dying anyway.”
As pressure builds for the White House to apologize publicly, which at this point is unlikely, Trump on Monday took aim not at Sadler, but at the staffer who leaked her comments.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 14, 2018
Leaking has been a fixture of life in the White House since Trump took office, and the news of Sadler’s comments have once again brought the issue into the spotlight. In a remarkable bit of meta-leaking, the details of a meeting held by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the leak were quickly leaked – by five separate leakers – to Axios. Sanders even acknowledged during the meeting that her comments would probably soon find their way to the media. “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too,” she reportedly said. “And that’s just disgusting.”
A day later, Axios published another report, this one about why the leakers leak. Reasons ranged from personal vendettas, to making sure the press has the story straight, to attempting to kill policy positions opposed by the leaker, to the feeling that everyone in the White House is engaged in a “Mexican Standoff” and that “you might as well shoot first.” One leaker told Axios that they choose their language carefully while leaking to avoid being implicated. “To cover my tracks, I usually pay attention to other staffers’ idioms and use that in my background quotes,” the leaker said. “That throws the scent off me.”
It’s also apparently quite the rush.
Talking to a prolific leaker right now. I asked him why he leaks. His response: “It’s like playing with matches.”
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) May 15, 2018
On Monday, White House Counsel Kellyanne Conway went on Fox News to gripe about the leaking epidemic, saying that she spent time talking with Trump about the issue while noting that if you are working for the president “you ought to be loyal.” She also said she expects personnel changes as a result of the administration’s renewed hunt for leakers.
On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends echoed Conway’s comments by describing Trump as a victim of disloyal staffers. Jonathan Swan, who has been reporting on the leaks for Axios, wrote on Sunday that he is able to learn more about the inner-workings of the Trump White House in a week than was in an entire year covering the Bush administration.
Despite the calls for loyalty to the president, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) posted a reminder that those working for the government are loyal to the government, not to Donald Trump.
Dear @realDonaldTrump: Depending on the leak, some leakers are protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act. Why? Because federal employees don’t ultimately work for you, they work for the American people. The oath they took was not an oath to you, it was to the US Constitution. https://t.co/ciVoCXUAxg
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) May 15, 2018
It probably isn’t a coincidence that it was a leak about McCain that stoked the president’s ire. Trump has had a tumultuous relationship with the longtime senator from Arizona, and likely isn’t pleased that the leak has led the public to sympathize with the ailing senator. On Monday, Politico reported that Trump “has continued to grouse privately to friends and associates,” and the he considers him an “unhelpful pest.” The media’s fixation on Sadler’s comments has persisted mostly because of the White House’s steadfast refusal to apologize for the remark. As Axios reports, the hesitancy to admit wrongdoing has trickled down from the top.
Despite Conway’s threats of personnel changes and Trump’s promise that “we will find out who [the leakers] are!”, it’s unlikely the media will suddenly be frozen out as to what’s going on in the White House. There’s no reason to believe that staffers’ feeling like they are in a “Mexican Standoff” will abate, which means they will continue to go to the press, just as they continued to do after Trump tweeted that he would catch leakers in February 2017.
The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2017
Tangible efforts have been made to stem the outgoing flow of information to no avail. In January, Chief of Staff John Kelly banned personal phones and smart watches from the West Wing.
More nefarious means have been taken as well. On Sunday, The Daily Beast reported that former National Security Council official Ezra Cohen-Watnick sought to monitor the communications of White House colleagues to figure out which staffers were feeding information to the press. As staffers noted, Cohen-Watnick’s plan to ensnare leakers was ironic, as he was reportedly one of the officials who helped provide House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes with highly classified intelligence reports in March 2017. For some reason, the president didn’t seem to have a problem with this particular transgression.