While leaks from attorneys either representing or investigating the president have dominated the news recently, we shouldn’t forget about the team that took tattling to reporters to a whole new level: rank-and-file Trump White House staffers. As everyone pondered how the New York Times wound up with Robert Mueller’s questions for Trump, White House staffers kept serving up all kinds of daring leaks, from the report that Scott Pruitt’s team was trying to plant negative stories about Ryan Zinke to multiple sources relaying quotes from Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s meeting condemning leakers.
On Sunday Axios caught up with some of the administration’s most prolific leakers to ask them why they do it. Some said it’s about doing what’s right for America … and annoying their enemies:
“The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”
“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”
Another said the atmosphere in the White House is basically leak or be leaked about:
“Otherwise,” the official added, “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.”
But the most interesting response concerned how they go about spilling anonymous quotes to reporters:
“To cover my tracks, I usually pay attention to other staffers’ idioms and use that in my background quotes. That throws the scent off me,” the current White House official added.
For instance, consider this quote from someone Axios describes as a “former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form.” The source said: “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores.”
Sure, that sounds like the kind of thing Steve Bannon would say — but maybe it’s actually what Anthony Scaramucci would say if he wanted everyone to think he’s a guy who does anatomically impossible things to himself.
As if that’s wasn’t enough to raise the level of paranoia in the West Wing, the Daily Beast reports that one White House staffer was looking into ways to monitor his co-workers’ communications for contacts with reporters or general disloyalty to President Trump. Three former Trump National Security Council officials claim that in early 2017, Ezra Cohen-Watnick explored technical ways to collect and analyze phone and other data as part of what he called an “insider threat” detection effort.
Cohen-Watnick, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was brought onto the NSC by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and eventually pushed out by Flynn’s replacement H.R. McMaster. He recently rejoined the Trump administration as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s national security adviser.
There’s no proof that such a program was ever implemented, and it seems highly unlikely considering the technological and legal hurdles associated with searching staffers’ private accounts and devices. But perhaps that wasn’t the point. “This seemed designed to intimidate rather than protect national security,” said one ex-NSC official.
Cohen-Watnick denied the story through his attorney, Mark Zaid, who said he was only involved in discussions about a potential insider threat program developed under the Obama administration in response to Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified intelligence.
“At no time was Ezra undertaking any activities to use the program, which remained under development when he left the NSC, in any manner unintended by the Obama administration. Any unfavorable insinuations to the contrary are coming from cowardly anonymous individuals who have a personal ax to grind,” Zaid said.
Considering what we’ve learned about White House leakers, that sounds like a plausible explanation too.