Why Washington Insiders Decide to Leak

President Donald Trump as seen on a television news show in the West Wing. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Two days after Vladimir Putin won reelection on March 18, Donald Trump called the Russian to congratulate him on the victory. Within hours, someone with access to Trump’s briefing papers leaked word that staff had provided him with explicit advice not to do so, in all caps, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

It’s understandable that his advisers would have wanted him to bite his tongue. Why staffers might leak that advice is a different question: The congratulations had been extended, so the leak couldn’t influence a pending policy outcome. The damage was done in terms of lending democratic legitimacy to an autocratic leader. If intended to air organizational disarray, well, even the most-dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters get it isn’t smooth sailing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s hard to see the utility even if the staffer leaked out of sheer horror or concern; Trump’s track record suggests that exposing him through leaks is perhaps more likely to trigger paranoia and obstinacy than persuade him to change tack. Indeed, Trump congratulated Putin even after he was lambasted last year when staff leaked that he shared highly classified intelligence with Russia that had allegedly been obtained from Israel.

Another possibility is that staffers were trying to protect their professional reputation by revealing the congratulations were not their doing. But, really, what’s the value of that kind of leak? It asserts superior wisdom to the president while simultaneously admitting utter powerlessness: “I am on the right side of this argument, but even so I couldn’t make a difference. There’s no convincing Trump.” It’s a fairly desperate play, a kind of Hail Mary, reflecting just how troubled the White House environment that produced it is.

And yet this kind of leak has become so common that we are increasingly numb to how unusual, even befuddling, a phenomenon we are witnessing. The privacy of presidential communications with foreign leaders had been treated as sacrosanct in past administrations, but under Trump there has been an unprecedented surge in leaks, and his exchanges with foreign heads of state have also fallen victim. Sure, specific events and staff changes have resulted in peaks and valleys in the intensity of leaking over Trump’s year-plus as president, but the pattern has been in place since the very beginning.

It all makes for an important case study. How have Trump’s disgust for process, his declared disdain for “the swamp,” especially those in its career ranks, and his upending of decades of bipartisan foreign-policy consensus on issues such as the transatlantic alliance and democracy promotion impacted the larger national-security community’s calculus on leaking? Over the past year, I interviewed a dozen current and former officials from across the national-security apparatus — none of whom are or were Trump appointees, but some of whom continued working during and after the transition — to find out.

Many of them are horrified by the president, which wasn’t a huge surprise. But much of what they told me was nevertheless eye-opening. For starters, they considered leaking commonplace — part of the toolbox, under any administration, for furthering particular policy agendas and trying to win departmental turf wars. Several said supervisors had encouraged them to engage with journalists to frame the narrative and shape debate, even if that meant sharing nonpublic information.

They also rejected the notion of a clear line between “good leaks” and “bad leaks.” A lot depends on one’s own biases, which shape perspective on the agenda of a given administration. As one former State Department official put it, “People elect leaders, but it’s not always clear to what extent they elect policies.” The dynamic seems especially pronounced under this president: “As a nonpolitical employee, the democratic legitimacy of the elected team goes a long way,” he acknowledged. “But Trump is upending so much foreign policy that had previously been orthodoxy across party lines for good reason that it has unsettled things.”

But most of the leaks the public hears about, these officials said, do not come from career officials. Significantly, they believed that the vast majority of leaks were coming from the administration’s political inner circle, particularly what one former senior official with the White House National Security Council (NSC) termed “vanity leaking” — i.e., the parlor-gossip games of who was on the up or outs within the West Wing (including those accounts of Javanka’s attempts to persuade the president to honor the Paris climate accords, which seemed at first blush to be policy-driven).

Vanity leaks from inside the White House are one thing; when it comes to more serious and substantive leaks, those interviewed insisted, the bigger story is not just about Trump’s competence and his team’s experience or lack thereof — actually, training inexperienced appointees is frequently part of the gig. For many, they said, the surge is attributable to the broader rejection of diplomatic decorum, rupture with foreign-policy orthodoxies, and outsize respect for pundits and staffers, like Stephen Miller and John Bolton, who have performed especially well in the media. Above all, there is the sense that Trump is at war with the national-security community and its mission.

To the extent that the “deep state” is responsible for these more substantive leaks, interviewees pointed to that sense of being under siege — what they called Trump’s “institutional malice” — as the primary cause. In other words, the deep state is leaking defensively to justify its own existence. And to protect itself. Left largely untouched by most, however, was any speculation of the motives for such “malice,” as though even asking the question could confirm these individuals’ deepest fears, namely, that the president has somehow been compromised by a foreign power.

“We have an administration that is full of amateurs, and there is a system in place in D.C. for how disagreements are escalated and whistles are blown,” explained a current official with Homeland Security and foreign-policy experience. “The persistent civil-service and Washington system has to have a steam release at some point in response.”

For his part, he told me, simply raising public awareness of disarray or a bad policy would not justify leaking national-security information — he would have to be confident his action could bring about a course correction on an issue he considered critical. “Bottom line, though, I can envision myself leaking under this administration.”

A few years ago, under Barack Obama and Susan Rice, I had the privilege of working in the NSC. In other words, I used to have a lot of access to “leak-worthy” material. Every workday, I’d make sure the alarm on my government-issued BlackBerry was set early enough to check whether I had received an email heads-up from the NSC intelligence team. I didn’t receive them as frequently as other colleagues, but the mere prospect of one would put me on edge. They were the confirmation that an issue under my policy purview would be briefed to President Obama later that same morning during the president’s daily briefing, the famous “PDB,” which meant I had to make a mad dash to the White House campus to review the classified material to be briefed, prepare points on the material for Rice and her top deputies, and coordinate with relevant NSC colleagues, all within a couple of hours of the moment my alarm went off. Even by White House standards, it was always a jarring way to kick off the day.

Across the national-security apparatus, there are literally millions of people who work with classified material like I did. Whether presidential appointees, foreign-service or civil-service officers, military, or contractors, they could come across material during their careers that is politically explosive or at least newsworthy if made public. But I myself never remotely considered leaking.

Of course, I did see the occasional leaks coming out of the Obama White House in the newspapers and was serving in government for the one-two of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, so I obviously knew leaks happened. Nevertheless, I felt pretty insulated from the practice throughout my time at the Pentagon, NSC, and State Department. It seemed to largely involve leaders of the national-security apparatus, communication officials, and peripheral dissenters, and I was none of those things.

What I was, though, was someone who actually believed in the president I was serving and what he represented. It’s not that I agreed with every policy decision after I made the transition from working on the 2008 campaign to the administration. And it’s also not that I always won the policy debates in which I participated. But I agreed with the broad direction of what we were doing in the world, and I valued the unique opportunity to have my voice heard by the most senior levels of my government.

So what’s changed? One explanation is that our president lacks the capacity to govern, failing even the most basic leadership stress test. Trump is uninterested in the adverse consequences that result from hasty and uninformed foreign-policy decision-making. Actually, it’s worse than that. Dissenting voices are purged, cronyism is rewarded, and nonmilitary government workers feel under attack.

Another factor is that Trump’s penchant for management by way of Lord of the Flies–style competition essentially incentivizes leaking. (A recent case in point: After a document compiled by Trump’s legal team — summarizing questions special counsel Robert Mueller & Co. have indicated they want to ask the president — was made public, some speculated the leak was an attempt by staff or allies to warn against interviewing with the special counsel.)

Under Obama, the best way to get your agenda attention was to prepare comprehensive briefing material. You know, actually do the job. Under President Trump, many feel like we’re in the Upside Down dimension of Stranger Things. Even as a West Wing regular, the best way to grab the president’s attention might very well be to leak on Fox. He never reads staff memos anyway.

“We all remember the phone transcripts that were leaked from the first month in office — they made the president look nuts,” said a former official involved with the Obama-Trump transition effort. “I suppose the public good there was exposing how unprofessional he is, but this wasn’t exactly the Pentagon Papers. The question is inherently personal: What are your ethical tripwires? What do you consider sufficiently grave to take real professional risks?”

One way to think about leaks is by classification level, which go in ascending order of sensitivity from “unclassified” to “confidential” to “secret” to “top secret.” The level does reflect an internal government risk assessment, and the legalities of leaking classified information are far more serious than anything unclassified. But it isn’t the way most of the officials talked about leaks. In our conversations, a more nuanced taxonomy of justification emerged.

Petty Leaks

First, there are vanity leaks, designed primarily to curry favor, win personal rivalries, or protect one’s reputation. The former senior NSC official called it “petty stuff,” but “the information disclosed usually isn’t classified or terribly important to our national security.” Sometimes this practice can get quite duplicitous. “You see it with the people that go out on TV to defend the crazy stuff coming out of Trump’s mouth and then leak about their personal outrage over it,” said former deputy assistant secretary of Defense Frank Mora. “It is an act of utter hypocrisy.”

Leaks Over Strategy

There are also disclosures motivated over legitimate policy concerns — which typically occur when someone opposes a policy and uses the press to try to kill it, or favors a policy and uses the press to promote it. The officials I spoke with expressed more sympathy for these leaks, though most said the leak’s substance is what really determines whether a policy leak is justified — i.e., was it classified or not, did it reveal sources or methods, was it about an illegal action or war crime, and what “societal good” resulted?

Many of them spoke from experience. “I participated in Deputies Committee meetings on Afghanistan when Obama was still deciding how to proceed with the war,” former USAID acting deputy administrator Mark Feierstein told me. “There’s an assumption in the Situation Room that what you say there stays there, so it would drive me crazy when I’d see leaks on our deliberations that I was sure were coming from the Department of Defense in an effort to box in the president.”

Leaks Over “Principle”

Even if they led to a legitimate debate among the American people, the officials with whom I spoke were even more skeptical of so-called high-minded leaks like those of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. “They put people’s lives in danger,” one former foreign-service officer affirmed emphatically. “In the Middle East, certain societal leaders, civil-society organizations, and human-rights advocates would not talk to us any longer for fear they would be exposed. In some cases, there were real concerns for these individuals’ safety. Sources and methods are untouchable always.” He continues: “The indiscriminate nature of the Manning disclosures is what kills it for me. If she had been more targeted to civilian killings in Iraq, perhaps she could have made a case for being put in the whistle-blower space. But Snowden? A whistle-blower? Give me a break. He’s in Russia!”

The Leaks That Aren’t Leaks

Then there are the authorized leaks — made to win an argument with a rival agency, pesky under secretary, or, perhaps most interestingly, foreign interlocutor. For example, a classic negotiating tactic is to leak an element of the terms under discussion to lock the other side into what it had privately conceded: a trial balloon, so to speak. The leak is intended to limit the ability of the other side to maneuver by making its position public. Similarly, the exposure that results from a leak can sniff out whether a commitment made privately was serious, as well as gauge domestic response to the revelation.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal illustrates these dynamics well and underscores again how politics and ideology shape our perceptions of leaks. Both the Trump and Obama administrations deployed this type of trial-balloon leak with respect to the agreement. The only difference is that they did so to advance opposing policy objectives: Obama’s team presumably leaked to help secure an agreement; Trump’s, to navigate its intent to decertify the deal. “At the end of the day, the former State Department official said, “what Trump is really saying is: Just leak what I want you to leak, and don’t leak what I don’t want you to leak.”

Justified Leaks

For all interviewed, criminal behavior was the gold-standard justification for a leak, especially when it undermines American democracy or is done at the behest of a foreign power. Indeed, Watergate and Deep Throat are held up even more universally as a “good leak” than one that could theoretically prevent a war. Deep Throat was clearly on the mind of many as they discussed concerns over Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. “I could certainly imagine a situation where I would leak to get someone like a Paul Manafort locked up,” said the current official. “If you had real evidence that the current administration was under political influence of foreign players and there was political interference to suppress that information, you have cause to pursue other recourse.”

The Pentagon Papers is a close historical runner-up to Watergate, with the former NSC official calling that leak “a profoundly principled objection.” But not everyone thought it was so clear-cut. “The Pentagon Papers is about the government lying to its people about an important thing, but there’s no real criminality. And come on, we can’t use government lies as the criteria,” said a former Pentagon official. “The government has lied quite a lot in our history, so I don’t think that justifies it.” For a smaller number of interviewees, human-rights abuses and policies that go against certain core values or interests of the country were also legitimate reasons.

The Trump Leak

My conversations inevitably converged on a type of leak particularly idiosyncratic to this administration: one to embarrass or expose the president, whether that exposure is intended to emphasize his incompetence, distance oneself from certain policies, or put a spotlight on suspicious behavior with regard to Russia and/or the Mueller investigation.

The Putin congratulatory call is a recent example, but the leak to make the president look foolish has been a constant companion to Trump. Just recall his January 2017 calls with the Mexican president and the Australian prime minister — in which he referred to Mexico’s “pretty tough hombres” and lambasted the Australian over a refugee agreement struck under Obama, before abruptly hanging up.

“It’s hard to see a policy prerogative,” said the former senior NSC official. “These calls were only released months later, so that suggests it was mostly about embarrassment, about trying to underscore what a shit show the NSC was. I suppose you could construct a rationale that they were an effort to box in a president who seemingly can’t handle the basics of international diplomacy,” but he was skeptical of any strategic justification behind these leaks — which likely came from a senior White House official or Cabinet member, given how few individuals we estimated would have access to a president’s call transcript (15 to 20, if that).

About whether such a leak is justified — in this environment, with this president — even current officials were torn. “I wish it were legitimate to leak just to embarrass him,” one told me. “I would personally give that person a high-five if we were at the bar. The thing is, though, the transcripts themselves are embarrassing, but it’s even more embarrassing that they leak in the first place. From a national-security perspective, I just wouldn’t want to see this as a general practice,” he said, for fear that foreign leaders would stop believing they could speak in confidence with the president.

So how do you do the job without compromising your moral integrity? As we weaved through the “logic of leaking,” it was clear everyone was wrestling to adapt their playbook. They had just never seriously imagined we would elect an executive who might be compromised by a foreign adversary and, to quote James Comey, is so “morally unfit” for the job.

One former appointee argued that “any leak that hurts this president that’s nonclassified and exposes his unfitness is fair game.” Others disagreed vehemently. “If I don’t trust or believe in the president, then I need to resign. Period. If I feel a need to leak to protect the nation, to essentially try to put a fence around the president, that’s unethical and it’s wrong. Again, assuming we’re not talking about criminality, leaking is about weakening the president, and if your justification is that he’s a maniac, well, what if your guy wins next and you love him but others think he’s the maniac? It’s a slippery slope.”

“I never leaked to sabotage a policy, never became a ‘policy entrepreneur,’ but if I’m in the White House and the administration is maybe going to cut 50 percent of the United Nations budget or totally roll back LGBTQ provisions, would I leak? Maybe,” said the former State Department official. “I’d like to believe that I’d leak to save lives even if it was against my institution’s desire, but I don’t know if I would. The best I can do is serve my boss, because the election results are the closest thing we have to the American people’s desires manifested.” His angst was widely shared among the career bureaucrats I spoke with, a strong counterpoint (even if anecdotal) to the claims of Trump’s supporters that the surge in leaks is the result of an entrenched bureaucracy engaged in an undemocratic attempt to neutralize Trump’s reform agenda.

“I understand that you might want to undermine their credibility to render them ineffective, but you have to weigh the longer-term institutional costs versus the short-term benefit of undermining this administration,” said a former political appointee from the State Department. “I would resign before I would leak, but I believe it is ethical in those times when America’s compass loses its North Star,” the appointee said, citing the McCarthy-era witch hunts, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Bush 43–era torture practices as past examples of when leaking would have been justified. When I ask if the present day was one of those times, he said, “Yes.”

*A version of this article appears in the May 14, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Why Washington Insiders Decide to Leak