Since Trump first ventured into politics in 2015, his team has been inundated with leaks, frustrating the president to no end — except, of course, when they benefit him. To plug his leaky administration and campaign, Trump has gone to great lengths, purging pollsters, letting his staffers know he considers people who talk to the press “traitors and cowards,” and requiring million-dollar donors to put their phones in a lockbox before meeting with him.
But one effort from the spring of 2018 appears to have backfired with enough kick to threaten his presidency. According to reports from Politico and the Wall Street Journal, the administration altered the protocol for a secret national security server, dumping potentially embarrassing conversations with other world leaders in a depository meant for highly classified information. The changes were made after the leaks of conversations with the leaders of Australia and Mexico, in which Trump told Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that an Obama-administration refugee agreement was “disgusting” and “horrible,” and told then-President Enrique Peña Nieto he was considering sending troops to Mexico to take care of “tough hombres” involved in drug trafficking. Per Politico:
The changes included a new log of who accessed specific documents in the [National Security Council’s] system — known as NICE or “NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment” — and was designed in part to prevent leaks of records of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders and to find out the suspected leaker if transcripts did get disclosed, one of the former officials said. Prior to the upgrade, officials could only see who had uploaded or downloaded material to the system but usually not who accessed which documents.
… If hiding politically embarrassing material, rather than protecting national security secrets, was the motivation, experts and former officials said, it would be an abuse of the codeword system. While not necessarily an illegal act, it does run counter to an executive order signed by President Obama in 2009 that says information can’t be classified to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” they said.
The administration’s changes to the system risk “undermining a whole host of important national security activities,” April Doss, a former attorney at the National Security Agency, told Politico. The majority of officials who require access can no longer see Trump’s transcripts under the new protocol — all to limit the release of information that could humiliate the president.
Granted, some of the phone calls that have reportedly been dumped into NICE are pretty embarrassing. CNN and the New York Times have reported that transcripts of Trump’s conversations with Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman are in there, and according to one former NSC official who spoke with Politico, the call to the Russian president was “pretty much what you would expect — you can take the first part of the Zelensky call with all of the over-the-top effusive praise and basically copy and paste onto pretty much any head-of-state call with Trump, whether it was Emmanuel Macron or Vladimir Putin.” The official added: “They were certainly the type of thing that you would not want in public because they were just really embarrassing from the standpoint of just national pride.”
Though it may be too late, there is one anti-leak solution the president hasn’t tried: running a tight ship. If the record-breaking level of turnover within the administration subsided, there would be fewer disgruntled ex-staffers willing to let information loose.