Despite its manifest desire to mislead the public about its activities and intentions, Donald Trump’s White House might well be the most “transparent” of any in our history. The administration allowed an adversarial reporter unfettered access to the West Wing for most of Trump’s first six months in office. And even after John Kelly evicted Michael Wolff, the administration continued to keep the public informed about every little piece of petty palace intrigue that transpired at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — including those generated by staffers keeping the public informed about every little piece of petty palace intrigue that transpires at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Thus, White House staffers leaked word last week that an administration aide had made an irreverent comment about John McCain’s impending death — and the White House responded by redoubling its efforts to crack down on leaks, which we know, because the details of said efforts immediately leaked.
On Thursday, administration staffers gave CNN an intimate look into how John Kelly’s ban on personal communication devices in the White House has been playing out. Specifically, they divulged that an anti-leaking squad — armed with devices that can detect the presence of non-government-issued phones — now patrols the West Wing in search of traitors:
Officials now either leave their personal devices in their cars, or, when they arrive for work each morning, deposit them in lockers that have been installed at West Wing entrances … Sources said it’s common to find several staffers huddled around the lockers throughout the day, perusing their neglected messages. The lockers buzz and chirp constantly from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The ban isn’t based on an honor system. Sweeps are carried out to track down personal devices that have made it past the lobby and into the building. According to sources who are familiar with the sweeps, 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. If one is detected, one of the men will ask those in the room if someone forgot to put their phone away … if no one says they have a phone, the men begin searching the room.
Alas, there are no signs that the phone patrol has managed to plug the sieve. Ultimately, the president’s management philosophy — pitting his underlings against each other in a battle for who can best flatter his ego, subjecting those who fail to abusive tirades, and, most critically, making massively consequential policy decisions on the basis of what he hears in the media — ensures that the leaks will just keep coming. As leakers who spoke with Axios explained:
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.”
“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.”
A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.
So, expect leaks (and leaks about leaks, and leaks about leaks about leaks) to continue flooding from the Trump White House for the duration of its tenure.