May 13, 2018

White House leakers leak about leaking

President Trump at the White House. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This White House leaks like there’s no tomorrow.

The big picture: The leaks come in all shapes and sizes: small leaks, real-time leaks, weaponized leaks, historical leaks. Sensitive Oval Office conversations have leaked, and so have talks in cabinet meetings and the Situation Room. You name it, they leak it.

  • My colleague Mike Allen, who has spent nearly 20 years covering the White House, says we learn more about what's going on inside the Trump White House in a week than we did in a year of the George W. Bush presidency.
  • This White House leaks so much that meetings called to bemoan leaks begin with acknowledgement the bemoaning will be leaked, which is promptly leaked...by several leakers in a smallish room.

Why does this White House leak like it’s going out of style? I reached out to some of the Trump administration’s most prolific leakers — people who have been wonderful sources to me (and, I assume, plenty of other reporters) — to get them to explain the draw.

  • "To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. "The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there's an accurate record of what's really going on in the White House."
  • "To cover my tracks, I usually pay attention to other staffers' idioms and use that in my background quotes. That throws the scent off me," the current White House official added.
  • "The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate," a current senior administration official told me. "By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President."
  • "Otherwise," the official added, "you have to realize that working here is kind of like being in a never-ending 'Mexican Standoff.' Everyone has guns (leaks) pointed at each other and it's only a matter of time before someone shoots. There's rarely a peaceful conclusion so you might as well shoot first."

A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. "Leaking is information warfare; it's strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.

  • Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. "Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.
  • “Bad managers almost always breed an unhappy workplace, which ultimately results in pervasive leaking," the former official added. "And there has been plenty of all those things inside this White House. Some people use leaking to settle personal scores, or even worse to attack the President, but for me it was always to make a point about something that I felt was being unjustly ignored by others."

Be smart: To any would-be leakers who are considering the practice, I'm also told leaking is pretty fun. Give me a call if you'd like to try it out.

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