Why this is the leakiest White House in history
It's driving Trump absolutely bonkers — and we should all be thankful
While journalists always like having as many sources as they can, time constraints usually mean each story will rely on only a few (sometimes as few as one). Five is better, 10 is fantastic. But recently we've seen lines like this one, from a Washington Post article examining the behind-the-scenes scrambling around the firing of FBI Director James Comey, particularly regarding the utterly implausible line the White House was putting out about how and why Comey was sacked: "But the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI, and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans, paint a conflicting narrative centered on the president's brewing personal animus toward Comey."
Thirty officials! There are some seriously loose lips in this administration. And for that, we should be thankful.
In fact, there may never in American history have been an administration that leaks as promiscuously as this one. It's a field day for reporters, a gold mine for historians, and a gift to any aficionado of infighting, backstabbing, and tales of chaos among the powerful.
The Comey firing is hardly the first time that the White House has been beset by leaks. They come from everywhere and on every subject, from the high and the low, and from staffers in the White House, in agencies, and among the president's putative allies on Capitol Hill. They're often entertainingly profane ("This is a s--tshow," one GOP aide texted a reporter about the White House's handling of the Comey firing). The volume has been large enough that Slate writer Katy Waldman (no relation) was able to devise a taxonomy of anonymous leaks to enable you to determine which top official they come from.
The last two administrations may have leaked — every administration does — but they were also known for a substantial degree of message discipline, in which official after official would repeat the same line, often to the dismay (and boredom) of reporters. That's one reason why this administration leaks so much: Half the time it can't figure out what it wants to say, or it changes its story from one moment to the next. That encourages different people to talk to reporters to get their own version of the story into the news, either because it's what they think everyone should be saying or because the line of the moment is transparent baloney.
The communication chaos is often a result of the fact that the president himself is so impulsive. His every tweet and bleat can send his aides scrambling to insist that he meant what he said, but by the time they've done their best to make the case, he may be saying something completely different. Government staffers will look on the whole sorry circus with dismay, and when a reporter asks, they'll be more likely to say, "Okay, let me tell you what's really going on."
The fact that Trump came into office with no government experience, then proceeded to hire a senior staff who also lacked experience, exacerbates the problem. An inefficient White House without clear lines of authority — who's in charge, anyway? Priebus? Bannon? Kushner? Nobody knows for sure — inevitably produces warring factions who will use the media as a way to push their preferred stories, make themselves look good, and undermine their competition.
And when things go wrong, as they have so often with this administration, everyone has an incentive to talk to reporters and point fingers somewhere other than themselves. Whoever comes out looking worse in the ensuing stories is then more likely to go to another reporter to get their side told — all anonymously, of course. The result is an absolute free-for-all.
Watching it all, of course, is the president himself, a man consumed with his image in the media and incensed by leaks. On the latter point he isn't all that much different from his predecessors; every president decries them. But Trump has more to deal with than prior presidents have. He doesn't only have to worry about leaks concerning policy information or matters of national security. On a daily basis, he'll pick up the paper or turn on the TV and hear about an anonymous White House staffer painting him as an ignorant buffoon or using the media to settle scores with someone across the hall.
It's probably driving Trump absolutely bonkers, which means he could start acting even more erratically. And if he does, we'll hear all about it, from 30 or 40 anonymous officials.