Leaks continue to plague Trump White House despite crackdown
President Trump’s administration has been plagued by leaks of sensitive information, and the problem is showing no signs of letting up as Trump passes his 500-day mark in office.
The exit this week of junior White House communications staffer Kelly Sadler — nearly a month after she privately made disparaging remarks about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — illustrates the extent of the problem.
Sadler was shown the door only after she reportedly accused her own supervisor of leaking during an Oval Office meeting in front of Trump himself.
The White House this week also faced questions over the leak of a controversial memo drafted by the president’s attorneys representing him in the Russia probe and aides were forced to grapple with Trump’s rambling remarks during a closed-door hurricane preparedness briefing.
The unrelenting pace of unauthorized disclosures demonstrates how leaking is a feature, and not a bug, of the Trump White House — one that has caused constant distractions and sown distrust among the president’s staff.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway lamented the problem this week during a breakfast with reporters in Washington while also claiming that the West Wing has made strides in rooting out so-called leakers.
“I don’t understand why people would come to work in the White House or in the administration … and really try to curry their image or try to hurt other people whom the president has asked them to work with,” Conway said.
Conway is one of several top White House staffers who has herself been accused of leaking private information, a charge she denies.
Trump frequently complains about leaks, tweeting last month that they are a “massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media” while also labeling leakers within his administration as “traitors.”
Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly and other top aides have made multiple attempts to stop the unauthorized disclosures, including implementing mobile phone bans and shrinking the size of communications staff meetings, but the problem has persisted.
Leaks occur in every White House, but the nature of recent disclosures differ from those that angered past presidents. Disclosures over the past year and a half have often appeared intended to hurt internal rivals or the president himself rather than influence policy decisions.
People familiar with the Trump White House say the leaks are a product of a toxic culture that incentivizes backstabbing instead of loyalty — an environment some say is fostered by the president himself.
“It’s like ‘Survivor’ or ‘Apprentice.’ The president creates this air of drama where people feel the need to knife each other in order to get ahead,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former White House lawyer under President George W. Bush who has helped guide several Trump administration nominees.
The problem, Jaffer says, is that Trump has not shown loyalty to his subordinates so they are not inclined to be loyal to him by keeping sensitive information under wraps.
“The president could change the culture, but it doesn’t seem like he is interested in doing that,” he said. “It’s no surprise his administration leaks like a sieve.”
White House staffers publicly and privately complain how leaks demoralize staff and make it more difficult to do their jobs.
The New York Times reported this week that aides to first lady Melania Trump purposefully kept the West Wing out of the loop with regard to her schedule and whereabouts following her kidney procedure last month over fears the information would leak.
Being labeled a leaker can be a kiss of death for an administration aide, yet that has not been enough to eliminate the practice.
Trump has increasingly relied on an ever-shrinking circle of confidants, leaving many White House staffers feeling as if they have been cut out of the process and with less vested interest in being discreet.
“I think less information and more empowerment for certain people is probably a better formula in them feeling that they are respected and can do their jobs very well on behalf of this country that we all love,” Conway said.
Some in Trump World argue the problem is most acute on the press and communications team, which has constantly been under fire for struggling to speak for the mercurial president.
“These leaks are happening to cut each other down, not to help the president,” said one former Trump campaign aide, who argued for “wholesale leadership changes” on that team. “It’s a bad culture.”
Conway and others have pushed back on that characterization, saying leaks also come from senior officials and others with sensitive information outside the West Wing.
“Many people work on the complex and many people have access to information who are not known to the public,” she said.
The issue stretches back to the earliest days of the administration. When Kelly was Homeland Security secretary, he warned another official not to email department staff about certain issues in order to limit the possibility of leaks.
“Again, the atmosphere in the cesspool makes it a blood sport to leak so if and when you enter the fray you need to be very-very careful. Infinitely more than you had to in the past,” Kelly wrote in a June 8, 2017, email that was obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The administration this week also moved forward in its push to stop a different kind of leak: those regarding sensitive national security information.
It is a problem past administrations have battled, often controversially by targeting members of the news media.
The Justice Department on Thursday announced charges against a longtime former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who is accused of lying to investigators about his contacts with reporters in a leak investigation.
As part of the probe, federal authorities seized years of phone and email records of a New York Times reporter, stretching back to her years in college.
While the move has drawn scrutiny, with some lawmakers voicing concerns about First Amendment protections, it remains unclear if the accused former Senate staffer leaked classified information.
The top Republican and Democrat on the committee said Thursday that the charges did not appear to include the mishandling of classified information, with prosecutors instead accusing the former staffer of leaking non-public information about committee business.
Trump, however, applauded the move.
“I’m a very big believer in freedom of the press, but I’m also a believer that you cannot leak classified information,” he said Friday.