Two incidents over the past 24 hours have made glaringly obvious what has been hinted at for the past two years: President Trump and his loyalists potentially find the release of nearly any information about what they’re doing to be offensive, no matter how mundane.
Often this is couched in the use of the word “leaks.” There are real leaks in the White House, and information has been provided to the news media that is unusually sensitive in nature. There are also more anodyne leaks of the palace-intrigue variety. And then there are things that are called leaks but which aren’t.
Anthony Scaramucci has been in the West Wing for less than a week, assuming the role of communications director on Friday. But he’s already made a place for himself in the history books with a remarkable phone-in interview Thursday morning on CNN, reaching out to the network’s “New Day” program to dispute claims made by an on-air guest. He then stayed on the phone for half an hour, peppering CNN’s hosts with a number of remarkable comments.
Leaking was one of the main subjects, though, since Scaramucci on Wednesday night lashed out on Twitter after Politico published details from his personal financial disclosure. This he dubbed a “leak” on Twitter, hinting that he believed White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was behind it. (The tweet has been deleted.) He also tagged the FBI in the tweet, and Ryan Lizza — the New Yorker writer who was on “New Day” when Scaramucci called in — confirmed that Scaramucci’s intent was to launch a federal investigation that would look at any role Priebus played.
But here’s the thing: Those forms are publicly available from the Export-Import Bank where Scaramucci served as an officer, as the Politico reporter noted Thursday morning. It’s public information — just information that Scaramucci apparently didn’t want released.
Earlier in the day on Wednesday, a different version of the same impulse. After President Trump announced a major policy change to the military on Twitter, the subject — quite expectedly — came up during the White House press briefing. Incoming White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked repeatedly for more details about the policy, not yielding much in response. Eventually, she made an unusual announcement — if the press was going to keep asking questions on the subject in lieu of anything else, she’d just go ahead and end the press briefing.
Sanders has proven adept at offering very little information even for other questions, of course, often defaulting to a “I’ll have to check on that” response to reporters’ inquiries. That’s when the White House has a press briefing; often, in the past few months, the briefing has been skipped or held off-camera.
Trump himself has been broadly averse to unsolicited questions from the press. He’s held only one full news conference as president and went for more than a month without conducting a sit-down interview. After he invited the press to cover a photo shoot with outgoing White House interns, he expressed frustration that the assembled reporters had the gall to actually ask him questions.
This is the same person who broke with decades of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns. It’s the president whose administration has chosen to hide its visitor logs, to stop reporting troop deployments, to meet with foreign officials in the Oval Office or at major summits without notifying the press or, in the latter case, without another American present. The president whose secretary of state included only one reporter on his first overseas jaunt. It’s a president who scoots off to his personal golf course nearly every weekend but won’t admit to the press he’s playing golf.
Trump has bashed “leakers” on his official communications channel (i.e., Twitter) dozens of times since taking office, using the term broadly to refer to anyone releasing information that he’s not happy about. That’s how Scaramucci used it, too. Trump, like Scaramucci, has also used the threat of access to federal prosecution as a means of impugning critics. Trump suggested that former FBI director James B. Comey violated the law by giving a memo to a friend to give to the press, though there’s no indication that doing so was illegal. To keep people in line, Trump’s team looks for the biggest cudgel available; as president, that’s the Justice Department.
What Trump wants isn’t solely an end to unauthorized information dripping out the White House windows (though he certainly wants that). He wants, more broadly, for no negative information about him or anyone he likes to be released at all, regardless of past practice and expectations. His frustration with the media isn’t really that the media makes things up, it’s that the media has the gall to tell the truth. He loves “Fox and Friends” (praising it yet again on Twitter on Thursday morning) and he loves Sean Hannity because neither has shown any interest in critical, objective coverage of his presidency. That’s the sort of information-sharing Trump supports.
President Trump and his core allies want you to know only what President Trump wants you to know. Everything else is leaks or “fake news.” Or, somehow, both.