Before Monday's unsealing of indictments against Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, and a guilty plea by George Papadopoulos, President Trump's allies preemptively sought to shift attention away from the substance of the charges and onto the leak that had led the media to expect them.
“There are strict laws against any of this type of leaking of grand jury activity,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said on CBS's “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“Fox & Friends” picked up the argument Monday morning, which must have pleased the president; he indicated on Twitter that he was watching the show.
Yet when court documents were subsequently made public, it became clear that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III actually had kept a lot of information under wraps. Though CNN had reported on Friday that indictments were imminent, the number, nature and targets of the charges were unknown.
The secrecy around Papadopoulos was particularly notable. The former foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign was charged in July with making a false statement to FBI agents, a development that went unreported for three months. His guilty plea on Oct. 5 also was kept quiet.
What's more, it is unclear whether Friday's heads-up about impending indictments came from a member of Mueller's team at all. CNN did not name its source and, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley pointed out when asked about the leak on “Fox & Friends,” defendants' legal teams often receive advance notice of charges, as a courtesy. The leak could have come from someone connected to Manafort or Gates.
The reality is that Mueller's team revealed little, if anything, to the media about the actions it ultimately disclosed on Monday. But Trump's team said plenty.
On Monday night, The Washington Post's Robert Costa, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker reported in intimate detail on how the day had unfolded at the White House.
“This portrait of Trump and his White House on a day of crisis,” they wrote, “is based on interviews with 20 senior administration officials, Trump friends and key outside allies, many of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.”
Twenty sources! As I noted several weeks ago, double-digit source counts are now common in unflattering reports about the president.
In this case, the problem for Trump is that the people speaking privately are undermining what the White House is saying publicly.
“Is this a difficult moment for the staff?” Laura Ingraham asked White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on the premiere of her Fox News show Monday night.
“No, I think the staff is very comfortable with simply serving the nation,” Kelly replied. “The vast majority of the staff would have nothing to do with any of this kind of thing. So, there's no — there's no worry about it.”
That's not what people in Trump world told The Post. Here's an excerpt:
But Trump's anger Monday was visible to those who interacted with him, and the mood in the corridors of the White House was one of weariness and fear of the unknown. As the president groused upstairs, many staffers — some of whom have hired lawyers to help them navigate Mueller's investigation — privately speculated about where the special counsel might turn next.
“The walls are closing in,” said one senior Republican in close contact with top staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “Everyone is freaking out.”
As the president's top advisers try to project serenity while on the record in the midst of Mueller's investigation, Trump's real leak problem is not with the special counsel's office but with his own team.