President Trump has run the most transparent White House in modern times.
It isn't that he has made an effort to be frank with the public about who he's meeting with or how decisions get made. In fact, his administration has been unusually secretive; as the head of the American Society of News Editors recently said, "Public data that was once available even without a Freedom of Information Act request has disappeared from public view, a trend of restricting access to government officials — especially those in agencies dealing with science and defense issues — has continued, and some forward-looking programs designed to improve the flow of information to the public that were created by prior administrations have been discontinued."
No, Trump's transparency has been entirely unintentional. It comes from the fact that this is, as far as anyone can tell, the leakiest White House in history. The result is an endless stream of stories about behind-the-scenes infighting, incompetence, and bad behavior that make the president and everyone who works for him look terrible.
Recently, a White House aide made a cruel remark about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), saying about his opposition to the nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA director, "It doesn't matter, he's dying anyway," which not only was leaked but turned into a story that is now nearly a week old and keeps going.
Understandably, this drives President Trump batty, and he lashed out on Twitter in his inimitable style:
The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 14, 2018
The president is calling his own staff "traitors and cowards," but also insisting that the leaks don't really exist, which ... doesn't make much sense. Color me skeptical that either his angry tweeting or White House efforts to shut down the leaks will be successful; here's a golden oldie from when his presidency was less than a month old:
The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2017
It didn't work then, and it hasn't worked since. Not that they haven't tried. In addition to regular staff meetings begging, cajoling, and threatening staff to get them to stop leaking (which are of course promptly leaked), in January staffers were prohibited from carrying cell phones while in the office. They have to leave their phones in their cars or deposit them in a locker when they arrive, though CNN reports that "it's common to find several staffers huddled around the lockers throughout the day, perusing their neglected messages." They've also taken electronic measures: "Men dressed in suits and carrying large handheld devices have been seen roaming the halls of the West Wing, moving from room to room, scouring the place for devices that aren't government-issued." How did CNN learn all this? You know the answer, don't you?
There are a certain number of leaks in every White House, as people maneuver to get their side of a story told, promote their policy ideas, or try to undercut a rival. But generally speaking, the more leaks there are, the less healthy your White House is. If everyone was committed to a single cause, felt supported and valued, and was devoted to their colleagues, they wouldn't be rushing to reporters to dish on all the chaos. That in turn makes everyone paranoid. "If you aren't able, in internal meetings, to speak your mind or convey thoughts or say anything that you feel without feeling like your colleagues will betray you, that creates a very difficult work environment," said Raj Shah, and he should know, because he's the deputy press secretary in this very White House.
The result, as yet another leaker told Axios, is that "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."
Though the leakiness has multiple causes, in the end it comes down to the president himself. If Trump commanded the kind of personal admiration that other presidents (both Democrat and Republican) had from their staffs, he'd be able to convince them to keep their mouths shut for the good of the team. But he doesn't; indeed, the topic of many leaks is how ignorant, capricious, and erratic Trump is, as though a staffer walked out of a meeting with him and said to themselves, "My god, I can't believe that nincompoop is actually the most powerful man on Earth. I've got to tell somebody."
Trump is not going to change, and there's little reason to think his White House is suddenly going to become a model of professionalism and restraint. Which is bad for them, but better for the rest of us. It may be a dumpster fire, but at least we'll continue to get an idea of what's burning.