The timeline shows that the system is working. On Tuesday, President Trump had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Early Tuesday afternoon, he confirmed the call to reporters as he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The White House issued a readout of the call, which included this line, “The two leaders discussed the state of bilateral relations and resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges.” In her afternoon press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke about the call.
At 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, we got the real scoop from a team of reporters at The Washington Post. “Trump’s national security advisers warned him not to congratulate Putin. He did it anyway,” reads the headline of the story. Not only that, but Trump also “chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn” the horrific poison attack on a spy and his daughter — Sergei and Yulia Skripal — in Britain.
Briefing materials prepared for the phone conversation used all-caps to emphasize, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” though it’s unclear whether the president read those materials. “Two people familiar with the notecards acknowledged that they included instructions not to congratulate Putin. But a senior White House official emphasized that national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not mention the issue during a telephone briefing with the president, who was in the White House residence ahead of and during his conversation with Putin,” reported The Post. Whatever the case, the president went right ahead with his congratulations on a reelection viewed as a “sham” for its anti-democratic contours.
According to CNN, Trump is “furious” over the leak of the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” guidance. “Trump was fuming Tuesday night, asking his allies and outside advisers who they thought had leaked the information, noting that only a small group of staffers have access to those materials and would have known what guidance was included for the Putin call,” reported CNN, citing a source familiar with the president’s “thinking.” And where there are leaks, there are countermeasures in the offing. “White House chief of staff John Kelly also is furious that a confidential presidential briefing became public knowledge, a White House official said, and intends to address the matter Wednesday as aides try to figure out who disclosed the warning,” indicated the CNN story.
A more constructive response might be to insist that the president of the United States treat Putin’s Russia like the foe that it has proved to be. Check with the intelligence community, which has concluded that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. Check with the United States’ closest overseas ally, Britain, which is defending its sovereignty following the chemical attack against the Skripals.
Note the narrowness of the leak that wound up in the pages of The Post. The congratulations were a matter of public record in the afternoon on Tuesday. The officials cited by The Post added that Trump’s remarks in the call countered briefing materials. There’s a strong public interest in such information: Here we have a president who has laid bare his impulsive, clueless and narcissistic ways in tweet after tweet. If only this unhinged person listened to his own advisers, he could mitigate his own towering defects. He doesn’t, as it turns out.
Another possibility: Officials are fed up with Trump’s general nonchalance toward briefings. Yet another possibility: Officials don’t want their buddies in and around the Beltway to think that they advised the president to congratulate Putin. Motives don’t particularly matter as much as the value of the information, which is high.
“Clearly there’s a whistleblowing component to this,” says Jesselyn Radack, director of whistleblower and source protection at ExposeFacts. The move by certain unnamed sources to clarify that the president was freelancing in his chat with Putin continues a rift between Trump and the national security establishment that started way back when. During the presidential transition, for example, Trump hammered the intelligence community after The Post reported that Russia had meddled in the presidential election to assist Trump. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” said the Trump transition team in a statement.
Patriotic transparency agents are all over the place these days — not only in Washington corridors but also in the adult-film industry. Stormy Daniels is suing to get out of a $130,000 hush agreement so that she can talk about her alleged affair with Trump. And Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, is suing for extrication from a $150,000 agreement with the parent company of the National Enquirer so that she can speak freely about her own alleged affair with Trump. In both cases, Trump denies involvement. “Some of the strongest whistleblowing is coming from women who’ve been able to get around non-disclosure agreements to talk about some really painful truths on their part and massive lies by Trump that could have cost him the election,” says Radack.
As The Post’s Ruth Marcus recently reported, the Trump White House strong-armed staffers to “sign nondisclosure agreements vowing not to reveal confidential information and exposing them to damages for any violation.” These abominations were conceived to outlast the Trump presidency, reports Marcus.
All of the stress on silence harks back to one of the more comical moments of the Trump presidential campaign. Nondisclosure agreements were standard among campaign staffers, creating awkwardness when one particular fellow, fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, tried his hand at punditry at CNN. When pressed about the matter on CNN by host Erin Burnett, Lewandowski unleashed this hash: “My confidentiality agreement is such where information I would be privy to — private conversations that take place between family members that are not meant for the public audience are going to be held in the closest and strictest of confidence with me.” Nor was Lewandowski shy about showing just what sort of commentary his agreement had secured: “I am fully committed in my private time with my family and my friends and telling everybody that I know that Donald Trump is the only person that is going to save this country for my children and hopefully their children someday,” he said.
That is the sort of “leak” that Trump prefers to see in the media.