politics

Trump's Right About One Thing: White House Leaks Are a Story

If the Russia scandal doesn't derail Trump's presidency, a lack of loyalty might.

by Harry Cheadle
May 22 2017, 4:45pm

Since Donald Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey two weeks ago, a series of shocking revelations and twists have turned political news into an HBO drama, one of the second-tier ones where the plot makes less sense the more you think about it. In the span of just a few days, the public learned:

  • Trump disclosed classified info about ISIS (reportedly provided by Israel) to Russian officials and called Comey a "nut job" at the same meeting.
  • Republicans privately joked about Trump being paid by Russia last June.
  • An FBI probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia is now looking at a current White House official.
  • Trump has been telling aides he regrets firing Michael Flynn, the national security adviser forced to resign in disgrace after it was revealed he talked about sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the transition then lied about it to other White House officials, including Vice President Mike Flynn. (Flynn is also under suspicion because he took money from a company linked to the Turkish government without properly registering as a foreign agent.)
  • The administration is considering invoking an ethics rule to shield White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and former campaign manager Paul Manafort from the investigation.
  • The White House also reportedly thought about investigating an Obama-era program that shares intelligence about cyberattacks with US allies.
  • White House lawyers were researching impeachment.
  • Trump thought about vetoing a budget deal agreed to by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, even though that veto would have shut down the federal government.

Individually, any of these stories could raise questions about Trump's state of mind or what the investigation will ultimately reveal. But they are also all the product of leaks—meaning that every one of these stories represents a betrayal by someone in Trump's orbit. Leaks are nothing new; Trump has been publicly complaining about them for months, and the conservative media has often criticized leakers in the Trump administration. But they've now ramped up in both intensity and frequency, and could derail Trump's presidency.

As Comey told a congressional committee back in March, if a leak involves classified information (like the contents of Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador) it could be a felony crime. The Justice Department is currently looking into these sorts of leaks at Trump's request, though no one has been indicted yet. But even non-criminal leaks are potentially a big deal.

Karl Rove, who was one of George W. Bush's most important advisers and knows a few things about managing a White House, broke down possible leak sources Friday on Fox News. Some leaks likely come from career agency staffers or people who served under Barack Obama—people who are probably hostile to Trump's benefit-slashing, nativist, pro-military agenda. But other leaks come from White House staffers who are screwing over the president who hired them.

Leaks are not just something happening to Trump, they are also something Trump caused to happen. He's spent his presidency antagonizing government agencies (including the FBI, which is none too pleased about Comey's firing), and bringing on senior advisers who don't agree on key issues. Unlike most presidents, Trump doesn't have a broad base of support in the political class; Republicans are happy to work with him as long as it advances their priorities, but don't appear much interested in his specific proposals like the border wall or infrastructure spending.

So: The White House doesn't share the goals of Congress and doesn't even seem to be on the same page internally. Some lower-level staffers are facing major private attorney bills because of the widening Russia scandal. The agencies are either demoralized or downright hostile because of the way the administration has mismanaged them or cut their budgets. That's a perfect storm of disgruntlement that makes backbiting and leaks not just likely, but inevitable. And all of it can be chalked up to decisions Trump made in his appointments and governing style (or lack thereof).

You can be president while plagued by scandal—just ask Bill Clinton. But can you be effective when everyone around you is spilling secrets to the oppositional press? I guess Trump will find out.

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