Desperate times, desperate measures

Why would a loyal staffer who adores the president of the United States leak damaging information to the national media that makes the president look bad? That is one of many questions that must be examined in light of The Washington Post story on President Trump’s Oval Office conversation with Russian officials.

The story had multiple sources. I know one of those sources. He can only be characterized as an ardent Trump supporter who desperately wants the president to succeed. But as more than one member of the White House realizes, sometimes the president will not take advice. Sometimes the president treats suggestions as criticism. More often than not, the president is vastly more interested in what the media say about him than what his advisers in his employ say to him.

White House staff members have ample incentive to leak to the press when they believe the president needs to pay attention or be admonished.This was the case with the source I know. He was not in the Oval Office while the Russians were there, but he was involved with the matter and participated in conversations leading up to and after the conversation with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.

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Trump has a habit, in his insecurity, of bragging about his knowledge, skill, and intelligence. With the Russians, he let slip key details about the acquisition of intelligence related to explosives planted in laptops. The information the president shared was not readily shared with our allies and could easily be used to determine from where and from whom we had collected the intelligence.

No crime was committed. The president has a great deal of leeway in declassifying information and sharing information related to national security. The issue is not whether he could do it, but whether he should have done it. Many people inside our national security apparatus do not think he should have. These same people fear it risks our future acquisition of relevant, related intelligence.

Conservative critics of the media have, over the past several months, routinely assailed the witch hunt atmosphere of the Washington press corps against the president. A number of major, explosive stories have been released only to see key details retracted hours later. The conservative reaction is one reason my source contacted me. He wanted to give me a heads up that the story was coming, it was legitimate, and I should caution conservatives whose natural instinct is to dismiss media attacks.

In this case, Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, denied key details that never actually appeared in The Washington Post report. This morning, he then walked back some of those denials while still downplaying the impact the president’s conversation might have.

Trump is an amateur at governance and no one should expect him to be flawless. He will make more mistakes than a professional politician and he will make different mistakes as well. The American people voted for a nonpolitician, and Mr. Trump himself has acknowledged that the job is far more difficult than he initially imagined. I have long believed, because of the choice the American people made, that we owe some measure of grace to the president as he learns on the job.

Unfortunately, the president’s mistakes can cost lives and access to intelligence. He has surrounded himself with capable people willing to speak frankly to him. But frank advice is only good if the president takes it. Thus far, on numerous occasions, the president has ignored solid advice and believes himself far more capable than he is. He lacks the humility necessary to understand how much he does not know.

Some of his advisers are getting desperate. The president is about to head overseas on a major trip. His advisers need him to more fully understand loose lips can mean lost lives, lost intelligence and lost alliances. 

If he will not pay attention to people in the White House, there is one place to go where everyone knows the president will pay attention — the boob tube. There, his advisers can and will leak sensitive information that casts the president in a bad light so he finally understands the urgency and importance of his advisers’ advice. Maybe, just maybe, he will take it to heart instead of thinking everyone is out to get him.

 

Erickson is the editor of The Resurgent. Follow him on Twitter @EWErickson. The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.