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 Sen. Ted Cruz, however, Meadows said they had 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 faced: 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 cellphone 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 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."
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.
Go deeper. Read the full story in the Axios stream.