Biden’s is not a leaky ship of state — not yet
There is something unusual in the first 11 weeks of the Biden presidency: There have been very few leaks, no big ones.
Think back four years, when the Trump White House was leakier than the Titanic: leaks about the President’s insulting phone calls to foreign leaders, about the deceit of the national security adviser, the slipshod incendiary effort to invoke a travel ban.
The relentless staff backbiting played out in the media.
This, I think, reflects the two presidents: Trump the narcissistic showman with little interest in the substance of governance, Biden weak on the showman side, strong on the governing bit.
That’s also reflected in the people around them. Trump seemed to pick James Mattis for Defense Secretary largely based on his nickname (“Mad Dog”) and Rex Tillerson because he looked — and acted — the part. They were destined not to work out with Trump. Much of the weak White House staff — starting with the hapless chief of staff Reince Priebus — had little loyalty to the president; they knew he had none for them.
By contrast, Biden picked a Cabinet and White House team with which he’s comfortable, who are largely in sync with him, with only a couple dictated by political pressures. (One potential worry is the close K Street connections of some top Biden aides.) Both the Cabinet and the White House staff possess a sense of loyalty to Biden and his agenda. That will matter when the inevitable tensions set in.
There will be leaks; there always are — and every president hates them, none arguably more than Trump, who reportedly would rage about leaks and who sent a record number of cases for possible criminal prosecution. The irony is that so many of the leaks came from within, including classified secrets revealed by the president himself.
Sometimes leaks serve the country well. Daniel Ellsberg’s revelations of the Pentagon Papers, which showed that American leaders lied to the public for decades about the ill-fated Vietnam War come immediately to mind. So too some stories about the government’s illegal anti-terrorist actions after 9-11.
A few are indefensible: The Chicago Tribune, after the 1942 Battle of Midway, indicating the U.S. had broken the Japanese code.
The motives of leakers vary. Some are well-intentioned to head off something bad or promote something good. Others are nakedly partisan, which the media always should label. Much too often anonymity is granted to sources who don’t merit that protection.
The aim usually is to influence policy. Every time there was an issue of stepping up a military presence, from Vietnam through Afghanistan, the military-industrial leak machine rolled into high gear. Inevitably, there will be leaks from the Biden group, ideological or political; even this tempered crowd will wince at some of the “according to reliable sources” reports or the ones from “those with knowledge of the situation.”
Leaks, however, also can serve as a valuable tool for an administration. It’s not unusual for a president to want stuff out without being publicly identified with it. This was explained well some years ago by essayist Malcolm Gladwell: “The legitimacy of government requires sunshine, and the practice of government sometimes requires darkness. In the face of this contradiction, leaks are a kind of workaround.”
Ronald Reagan used this to convey intent to the Russians during the Cold War; the Obama administration relished credit for the effectiveness of its drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan but didn’t want to be associated with the collateral damage to civilians. Leaks were the workaround.
Look for Biden to do likewise, mainly in foreign policy.
The juiciest, however, will be the leaks or revelations from the former administration. A Politico story last month reported on the quartet of former top ranking pandemic officials collaborating to make sure that Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar didn’t spin a false narrative about the incredibly botched handling of the crisis.
There are dozens of books in the works, including from Trump officials promising to tell-all, but likely to be more finger-pointing and blame-shifting. Word is that former top White House aides like Kellyanne Conway might dish a lot of dirt. The vocal Trump sycophants can pull their punches on the former boss — who’s still popular with the base — and settle scores with enemies within the proverbial palace.
Of course, it will all make for more gossip and score-setting than honest history — but it also will likely make us more appreciative of the current return to normalcy.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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