The New York Times had a big scoop Sunday that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with a Russian lawyer to try to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. As I wrote yesterday, that article was interesting for many reasons — for instance, it showed some Trump advisers were open to at least getting useful anti-Clinton information from Russians, and Trump Jr. has changed his story on what happened several times.
But one of the most interesting aspects of the story itself was actually the sourcing.
Reporters Jo Becker, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman said the story was based on accounts from “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” Here’s why that sourcing is intriguing.
First, the fact that these are White House advisers makes this story’s sourcing appear to differ from many other Trump/Russia investigation-related stories, which often seem to have been leaked from Congress or from law enforcement or intelligence agencies.
Second, these sources were apparently okay with being identified as White House advisers rather than demanding a more vague attribution to better hide their identities, such as “US officials.” That seems to suggest a strategic leak.
Third, there’s the number — this isn’t just one White House adviser, it’s coming from three. Again, that suggests a coordinated leak. It’s rare that three separate White House advisers would separately go rogue to leak about something, especially something that appears to be damaging information about the president’s son.
Because these sources are publicly anonymous, any account of their motivations will necessarily be speculative. Still, this story has all the hallmarks of a deliberate, strategic, White House-approved disclosure, so it’s worth asking just why the White House may have wanted to get this information out there.
There are several possibilities. For one, keep in mind that this big Times story that Trump Jr. took the meeting in hopes of getting dirt on Clinton was in fact a follow-up to a Times story one day earlier which first revealed the meeting happened (but not the anti-Clinton motivation behind it).
So once the first story was published, the White House may have taken stock of what they knew (Senior Adviser Jared Kushner was at the meeting so knew all about it) and decided it was better to just dump the fuller story out there, rather than have it inevitably leak later on. Call this the “I guess we should fess up” scenario.
It’s also noteworthy that the story puts forward a version of events in which Trump Jr. was the primary driver behind this meeting, and Kushner didn’t know much about it beforehand.
So it’s possible that Kushner (who is, remember, a White House adviser) or people close to him may have wanted to shape the story in a way that made Kushner look relatively good — fearing the alternative, that a sketchier and more innuendo-filled account of Kushner having another strange meeting with a Russian would leak eventually. This is the “make Jared look good” scenario.
Finally, there’s the possibility that, as Josh Marshall posits, the leak is “either to get ahead of something much more damaging or get a first crack at shaping the public understanding of something much more damaging.” Call this the “pre-spinning a very bad story” scenario.
This basic motivation is pretty common in scandal politics — in fact, Peter Baker’s book on President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, The Breach, describes similar dynamics at play. Clinton’s lawyers were desperate to get an early heads up on just what independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation had turned up — both to help them better prepare their response, and perhaps to selectively leak tidbits in a way that helped them look better.
But Baker writes that House Republican leaders “were certain that if the White House had prior review, it would use the extra time to inoculate Clinton by leaking the most damaging facts in the most favorable light before the public had a chance to evaluate Starr’s report.”
To really understand whether the motivation here is belated disclosure, self-preservation, or preemption, though, we’d of course have to know whether there is in fact more to the story of this mysterious meeting involving Trump Jr. and Kushner, or of other meetings and Russian collusion more generally. And we don’t know that yet.