Tuesday featured one of the most embarrassing leaks of the Trump administration. Sources told The Washington Post that Trump disregarded briefing notes from his national security team during a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, congratulating Putin on his reelection and failing to broach Russia's alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
Trump and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly are some combination of furious and fuming over the leak, depending upon which report you read. Here's how CNN's Kaitlin Collins and Jeff Zeleny put it:
According to the source, the incident resurfaces [Trump's] long-held belief there are individuals inside his administration — especially in the national security realm — who are actively working to undermine him.
Leaks are something of a self-perpetuating, vicious cycle within the Trump White House. The more Trump does highly questionable things against his advisers' advice, the more it seems to leak out, the more Trump believes the deep state has penetrated his White House, and the more he disregards his advisers.
But there is an alternate explanation: What if the leakers are trying to help rather than embarrass Trump?
Sure, this could be about retribution against a president who refuses to listen to the Very Smart Experts around him. Those advisers are liable to take that personally and grow frustrated at being so casually and regularly disregarded. Imagine having that situation with your boss.
But this is also a president whose advisers have regularly felt the need to go on cable news to get his attention. Often their internal deliberations seem to play out over the airwaves in a strange and puzzling way — but one that many of them seem to have recognized works better than the alternatives. It also seems entirely possible that these same aides see embarrassing Trump as the only way to get his attention or prevent him from doing bad things.
This is what appeared to happen last year when aides leaked that Trump had inserted himself in the situation involving Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign. Trump, it turned out, had helped craft a highly misleading statement about the meeting. Anonymous aides fretted to The Post that the president — who has regularly opened himself up to at least the appearance of obstructing justice — was creating potential legal problems for himself.
“This was . . . unnecessary,” said one adviser. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.” Other advisers said Trump was so convinced that he was innocent that he was blind to the danger of it looking like a coverup.
Other leaks coming out of the White House seem similarly geared toward righting the ship on key matters. There was that time sources revealed that Trump shared classified information with top Russia officials — possibly jeopardizing an important intelligence-gathering arrangement overseas. There were the leaked transcripts of those calls with the leaders of Australia and Mexico. There have been extensive leaks about how Trump doesn't like to even talk about Russian election interference — much less do anything about it.
These leakers' efforts might have been in vain, but it's possible that they were legitimately trying to shift the course of Trump's actions. Ignoring or disregarding key talking points while on a call with an antagonistic foreign leader such as Putin must be cause for concern. We forget how bonkers that is because everything about this presidency has been so bonkers and unprecedented. But aides have to be worried that Trump might repeat this behavior in more fraught situations — like, say, a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci — whom Trump briefly installed to root out White House leakers — described it like this in July: “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.”
The line between trying to save the nation from Trump and trying to save Trump from himself is a thin one — as is the line between leaker and whistleblower. In this case, as in these others, it's worth Trump asking whether he has created an environment in which his advisers feel they have no choice but to leak their cries for help to the media. (Not that he will.)