So far, this White House has leaked like a frigate blown open from the inside and torpedoed from the outside at the same time. Some weeks, the flood of brackish water spilling onto news pages and cable television channels completely obscures the ship of state.
While there are different types of leaks — transcripts of the president’s calls with foreign leaders, information about meetings between President Trump’s proxies and Russian officials during the campaign, and self-serving rifle shots designed to empower one White House official over another — they all have the effect of further impeding Trump’s agenda and making his administration look almost as chaotic as it is.
No wonder he’s so focused on the leaks; it’s impossible to get anything done when the arms of the government — and, indeed, the White House staff — are wrestling with each other in public. But much as they exacerbate the tough job of governing, the leaks are less a cause of dysfunction than a symptom of it.
That’s why Attorney General Jeff Sessions is right when he says the administration should be focused first on preventing the unauthorized dissemination of information (some of which may be criminal but much of which is simply unhelpful to Trump’s cause). As he said Friday, by the time the Justice Department is in the investigation and prosecution phases, the damage already has been done.
The problem for Sessions, and, more important, for Trump, is that it is much easier to prevent leaks when the interests of the administration and the nation are more clearly aligned.
When government officials believe the president and his minions are hurting the country — or trying to hurt the country — they take their case to the press, usually anonymously. To combat the leaks, Trump has to do a better job of convincing people with access that, even when they disagree with a particular policy, it is being formed and executed with the intent of advancing America’s position at home and abroad.
No blank check?
The tension point here is that Trump believes he has a blank check, signed by the voters, to redefine U.S. interests, and many people in government believe he’s doing so in a way that is fundamentally at odds with American values.
Trump says that his electoral college victory is a mandate to tear up convention. And he is in the process of reversing a lot of longstanding policies thought by presidents of both parties and Congress to be in the best interests of the American people. In particular, he has opened up an assault on our system of checks and balances as a means to achieve his goals.
It should be eye-opening that Trump and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had essentially the same response to Congress pushing a new Russia sanctions law on the White House.
Here’s what Medvedev said: Trump showed “total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way” when he signed the law, which was backed by veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
And here’s what Trump said in his signing statement: “In its haste to pass this legislation, the Congress included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions.” Among his beefs: Congress limited the president’s ability to assist Russia’s expansion.
The same script
Both Russia and Trump accused Congress of overstepping. Forget for a moment the question of whether Trump colluded with Russia during the election. He’s now aggressively aligning himself with Vladimir Putin in a fight with Congress and even using the same basic talking points.
That’s but one example of a policy position that the vast majority of members of Congress and the entire bipartisan foreign policy establishment see as incongruent with U.S. foreign policy goals. Trump ran against the establishment; it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s having trouble corralling it to implement his vision.
It’s clear he believes America should follow Russia’s lead in a number of areas, but he hasn’t made a convincing case for how that empowers the United States. If he had, perhaps there wouldn’t be so many leaks related to his connections to Putin or his conduct of foreign policy generally. Some are just embarrassing, while others show that his campaign was interested in using Russian assistance to win the 2016 election and that he wanted then-FBI director Jim Comey to halt the bureau’s investigation into that matter.
In the latter cases, there’s not much of a defense for Trump.
But the recent release of transcripts of his conversations with Mexican and Australian leaders crossed a line. The president has a right to expect that his conversations with foreign leaders will remain private. Sometimes, the president has to do things that are unpopular in the moment because he believes they will benefit the country in the long-term. More immediate, that particular leak will make foreign officials more reticent and less direct in their dealings with American counterparts. That’s not good for the country.
Trump is right to be angry about it.
But if he really wants to stop the leaks, the key is to conduct business inside the government in a way that instills confidence that he is putting America first.
So far, he hasn’t done that consistently. Until he does, he can expect those who disagree with his policies to keep talking to reporters.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.