On Thursday night, CNN broke the news that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had reached out to a senior FBI official to encourage him to talk without attribution to reporters about recent allegations that the Trump campaign had been in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials during the course of the 2016 race.
On Friday morning, President Trump took to Twitter — of course — to respond.
This is standard operating procedure from Trump when it comes to leaks out of the federal government. Amid the controversy over former national security adviser Michael Flynn's deceptions regarding the nature of his conversations with Russia, Trump focused exclusively on how leaks within the intelligence community were damaging national security.
“Things are being leaked,” Trump said at the time. “It's a criminal action — criminal act — and it's been going on for a long time. Before me. But now it's really going on.”
Sure. Leaks that endanger national security should be investigated. But what's really going on here is that Trump is totally missing the point — whether intentionally or by accident, I can't totally tell.
Look at the news of Priebus urging the FBI to talk on background — without names attached — to reporters as a way to push back against the story line that campaign operatives were constantly in contact with Russia. The most important element of that story is that it's against the rules for the White House to contact the FBI for matters like that, not that someone at the FBI leaked out the fact that it happened.
By making the conversation all about leaks — rather than the veracity of the information that the leaks contain — Trump is turning the conversation more in his favor. He knows his base thinks the media is terrible and therefore anyone who willingly cooperates with them — leakers — must be even worse.
But here's the thing: While plenty of leaks are frivolous attempts by junior staffers to puff themselves up, there are some that are a necessary part of democracy. Leaking out information that exposes wrongdoing is often a courageous act of citizenship. To put a blanket over all leaks as bad is to oversimplify.
And, again, the most important thing in these leaks is to ascertain whether the information is true, not hunt down the leakers. Trump's tweets this morning seem to confirm that the CNN report is right, meaning that Priebus clearly broke the rules. That Trump doesn't get that suggests a deep tone-deafness — whether purposeful or not.