Jul 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: How the White House is trying to trap leakers

Illustration of a big hand with a magnifying glass inspecting a leaking White House.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has told several White House staffers he's fed specific nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they pass them on to reporters — a trap that would confirm his suspicions. "Meadows told me he was doing that," said one former White House official. "I don't know if it ever worked."

Why it matters: This hunt for leakers has put some White House staffers on edge, with multiple officials telling Axios that Meadows has been unusually vocal about his tactics. So far, he's caught only one person, for a minor leak.

The big picture: Trump has made clear to Meadows that an important part of his job is to "find the leakers" — a wickedly difficult task that has plagued all three of Meadows' predecessors.

  • Trump is especially furious about two recent leaks of classified and sensitive information.
  • As Politico first reported, the administration has interviewed people with access to the intelligence that the Russians were paying the Taliban bounties to kill American soldiers. A senior White House official confirmed Politico's reporting that they have narrowed down the list of suspects to fewer than 10 people.
  • Trump was also enraged when the New York Times reported that the Secret Service rushed him down to the bunker during the protests outside the White House.
  • So far, Meadows has yet to deliver on either of these high-priority leak hunts. A source familiar with Meadows' thinking said he is "focused on national security leaks and could care less about the palace intrigue stories."
  • On a recent podcast with Ted Cruz, however, Meadows said they tracked down and fired a federal employee who leaked information about a White House social media executive order.

Between the lines: Meadows, Trump's fourth chief of staff in three and a half years, faces the same problem all of his predecessors face: In the leakiest White House in modern history, how does one possibly satisfy a president who has privately said he feels like he's surrounded by snakes?

  • All of Trump's chiefs have tried to stop the leaks, with no success, but perhaps nobody tried harder than Mick Mulvaney.

Mulvaney never netted the sort of catch Trump wanted. A former White House official said the one time Mulvaney did take evidence to Trump that he presented as damaging, the president dismissed it.

  • In January, Mulvaney asked the White House's IT department to search the work cellphone records of senior staff. His office gave the IT department the cell phone numbers of the top reporters who cover the White House.
  • After getting back the spreadsheet and finding senior staff contacts with reporters to be mostly unremarkable, Mulvaney zeroed in on what he thought were some unusual phone calls for White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
  • Mulvaney, who had been in a bitter feud with Cipollone, had already told Trump he thought the White House counsel was a leaker.
  • When he'd made those accusations, Trump replied, "The guy doesn't even talk to the press. Never has," said a source familiar with their interactions.
  • The spreadsheet the IT department produced for Mulvaney in mid-January showed that Cipollone had multiple phone calls with the New York Times' Maggie Haberman and CNN's Pamela Brown. But when Mulvaney presented this information to the president, Trump brushed it off and did nothing about it, the former official said.
  • A former administration official familiar with the impeachment defense defended Cipollone. "Pat was encouraged by the president to talk with the media because the president viewed him as a strong advocate on his behalf. This was part of a coordinated effort.
  • "It's important to note Pat made all of these calls from his official phone," the former official added. "If he was leaking do you really think he’d be doing it from his official phone?"

Told of this incident, Chris Whipple, presidential historian who wrote the definitive book on White House chiefs of staff, called it "unprecedented."

Behind the scenes: Trump went into a fury about leakers in late 2019 and early 2020. Trump told multiple members of staff it was a high priority to find "Anonymous," the senior administration official who wrote a viral New York Times op-ed and later a bestselling book describing Trump as dangerously unfit and unstable.

  • The White House procured authorship attribution software to match Anonymous' writing style against internal writing samples from current administration officials. But the software was difficult to use and the effort failed, according to a senior administration official.
  • Meanwhile, Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro launched his own personal hunt for Anonymous.
  • Navarro's investigation culminated in a lengthy memo citing stylistic analysis, biographical information, a Reddit post and a defunct blog to allege that the author was former national security staffer Victoria Coates. She vehemently denied the charge and retained counsel. No one ever went on record accusing Coates and the White House put a senior administration official on background saying leadership didn't put any stock in the rumors.
  • Literary agent Matt Latimer, whose firm brokered the book deal, said Coates is not the author. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said Coates "has served the president loyally since the earliest days of the administration."
  • Coates is now senior policy adviser to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and special energy representative to the Middle East.

Other highlights of the White House's leak hunts include former press secretary Sean Spicer forcing his own staff to dump their phones on a table for an impromptu phone search — an interrogation that itself immediately leaked.

  • And former communications director Anthony Scaramucci famously threatened to fire all the leakers, but at the same time... well this Vox headline sums it up: "Anthony Scaramucci leaked that he would fire a press aide, then complained about the leak."

The bottom line: Over the past three and a half years, Trump's White House has been in a persistent state of flux, but one constant has remained — he persistently urges his top aides to "either 'find the leakers' or 'find the f---ing leakers,'" as one senior White House official put it.

  • In early December, Trump told a senior White House staffer it would be "a better use of your time to stay here and find f---ing Anonymous" rather than join the president on his trip to London for the NATO summit, according to a source familiar with the exchange.
  • The staffer went on the trip, nonetheless. Seven months later, Anonymous is still at large.

"Leaks drive presidents crazy," Whipple said. "They always have and they always will. But one thing that effective chiefs of staff figure out is that the way you prevent leaks is not by tapping people's phones or threatening to ruin them.

  • "The way you prevent leaks is by running an effective White House staff where voices are heard and people feel they have a stake in the process and there's some integrity.
  • "I know that may all sound Pollyanna-ish," Whipple added, "but that's really the way you prevent leaks.
  • "And the way you encourage them is by doing lunatic things like trying to monitor their calls and ferret them out and threaten to ruin them. So it's just counterproductive."

After we got off the phone, Whipple texted a final thought: "A good chief of staff knows that the best way to prevent damaging leaks is to stop doing illegal, stupid stuff. You don't have to be James Baker to figure that out."

Go deeper: Why do leakers leak? I'm glad you asked.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional information about the search for Anonymous.

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