The leaks won’t stop.
The Trump administration can sure try. It can make a renewed effort to identify and punish leakers in intelligence agencies — something Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to do in the coming days. It might prevail on FBI director nominee Christopher Wray to entertain the possibility his predecessor James Comey reportedly balked at: throwing reporters in jail for leaked information. It can even turn against itself: On Wednesday night, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci accused White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of leaking Scaramucci’s financial disclosure forms, and threatened to call the FBI to have Priebus investigated.
It won’t work.
This isn’t just because the president himself is allegedly cavalier with classified info, like the details he reportedly told Russian emissaries in May that could lead to the identification of Israel’s best source on ISIS, or his tweet in July that confirmed a covert program in Syria (in the course of insulting a Washington Post story about it).
It’s because of the way the president runs his government.
Donald Trump and his advisers have created an administration in which there is no way to get the president’s attention, or to resolve problems, through normal channels.
The only way to make sure an issue will get any attention whatsoever — much less have a prayer of actually getting fixed — is to leak.
Trump doesn’t read memos. But he watches Fox & Friends.
Imagine you’re a somewhat senior government official — one who doesn’t get a lot of face time with the president, but who has access to pretty important information — and you need to send a message to President Donald Trump.
You can try to write him a memo, or get the message into a briefing paper his staff is preparing. But the staff is trying to squeeze a ton of information into the incredibly narrow aperture of “what the president is actually going to read.”
Your message had better be less than a page (ideally a lot less, so that it can fit on a page with all the other messages all the other officials like you are trying to send). It had better include a visual aid — a map is good.
If you can find some way, however gratuitous, to mention the president’s name in the text, that’s great — unless he’s already stopped reading before he even gets to what you’re trying to say because someone else didn’t jam his name into a paragraph.
You’d better not need the president to actually make a choice between multiple options. You should be able to tell him the pros and cons of how something will play in the press — which doesn’t give you a lot of options if you’re trying to get him to deal with something that shouldn’t be publicly known. And whatever you do, don’t tell him he can’t do something: That’s reportedly “the quickest way to get him” to do just that.
Or you can go the easier route: You can just leak the information to someone so that it ends up on Fox & Friends.
You know the president watches Fox News’s morning show, because everyone knows the president watches Fox News’s morning show. His early-bird tweetstorms are timed to the topics of their segments. He even favorably tweets about articles about how much he loves Fox & Friends. Advertisers, including lobbyists, are paying a premium to air on shows Trump is known to watch.
Why should lobbyists outside the government have a more reliable way of reaching the president than people inside it? You go where the president is likely to see you.
This isn’t a product of the federal government. It’s a product of organizations Trump runs. His campaign was famously leaky. His transition team was so leaky that pretty much every major Cabinet appointee was known in advance. His White House is hardly in a position to lecture executive branch agencies about leaking, given how liable they are to dish about their boss and each other to any of several reporters.
It’s perfectly understandable. They, too, are simply giving themselves the best chance of reaching the president’s ear.
If you refuse to take bad news the easy way, you force yourself to deal with it the hard way
The information flow could, in theory, be fixed — if Trump wanted to. But to want to fix it — to be willing to slog through detailed memos and limit his screen time — he’d have to confront a deeper problem: The most powerful man in the free world is simply unwilling to hear bad news.
This is one of the biggest reasons the information he gets from staff is so limited — reports indicate that to keep him in a good mood, staffers deliberately pad packets of press clips with positive coverage. But even dissent that manages to get through to him might go unheard or rejected — it could even ruin his mood and cloud his decision-making for the rest of the day.
That defeats the whole purpose of telling the president bad news in confidence. It makes leaking the obvious choice.
Erick Erickson wrote about this back in May, when discussing a friend who witnessed the meeting in which Trump divulged classified information to the Russian officials:
The President will not take any internal criticism, no matter how politely it is given. He does not want advice, cannot be corrected, and is too insecure to see any constructive feedback as anything other than an attack.
So some of the sources are left with no other option but to go to the media, leak the story, and hope that the intense blowback gives the President a swift kick in the butt. Perhaps then he will recognize he screwed up. The President cares vastly more about what the press says than what his advisers say.
This is a feature of Trump’s personality, but it isn’t confined to Trump. You can see it throughout his administration — in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s distance from staff, in Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly’s insistence that any criticism of his agents is a direct attack on morale.
Trump appointees can’t be trusted to be objective when dealing with internal issues because the president appears to feel no compunction about attacking people for disloyalty — as his sustained attack on Attorney General Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has made painfully clear. Obama appointees run the risk of getting shoved out at any time if they cause any problems. And then there are all the positions in government sitting empty, simply preventing conflicts from being resolved because there’s no one senior enough to resolve them.
The Trump administration, to all appearances, has only one way to deal with bad news: shoot the messenger. If the messenger stands up and identifies himself in a private meeting or a memo or a recusal, they know where to shoot. If the messenger leaks to a reporter, they don’t — and besides, they might, just might, realize it was their problem to begin with.
Bad news doesn’t simply go away if you don’t want to hear about it. The Trump administration has created an environment in which leaks are fulfilling the function of basic executive processes, like resolving internal disputes, correcting course, and simply giving the president an accurate sense of what’s going on.
If the Trump administration really wanted to stop the leaks, it would change to make leaking unnecessary. But that would require the president to shut up and listen to people he’s already decided are part of the “deep state” out to get him. It would require him to acknowledge that he can’t drain the swamp without getting drowned in leaks.