President Trump has renewed his vow to root out the people in his administration who make unauthorized disclosures to the press, declaring on Twitter that “leakers are traitors and cowards.” Yet plugging leaks has proved to be a quixotic quest for the president.
Trump made his most concerted effort to plug leaks last summer, when he filled the White House communications director's role with Anthony Scaramucci, who brought to the job zero public-relations experience but a lot of tough talk.
“I’m going to fire everybody; that’s how I’m going to do it,” Scaramucci said of his approach to eradicating leaks. “You’re either going to stop leaking, or you’re going to get fired. ... If I’ve got to get this thing down to me and Sarah Huckabee [Sanders], then the leaking will stop.”
Scaramucci turned out to be a leaker in his own right. He told Politico of his intent to fire assistant press secretary Michael Short before he told Short. Short learned of his fate in the press. And Scaramucci memorably unloaded on White House colleagues Reince Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon in a call with the New Yorker that Scaramucci later said was off the record in “spirit.”
Scaramucci's tenure lasted 10 days.
Months earlier, only a few weeks into his presidency, Trump told reporters, “We're going to find the leakers, and they're going to pay a big price.” The Washington Post had recently published accounts of Trump's private conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, based on disclosures by senior administration officials.
More than a year later, details of the president's phone calls — among other things — continue to reach the media. On Sunday, for example, New York magazine chronicled Trump's late-night chats with Fox News host Sean Hannity, as described by White House aides.
The trigger for Trump's latest pledge to crack down on leaks appears to have been last week's disclosure that a White House press aide, Kelly Sadler, privately mocked the health of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has brain cancer. The episode consumed much of Monday's televised media briefing at the White House, as deputy press secretary Raj Shah repeatedly declined to issue a public apology or condemnation on behalf of the administration, while noting that Sadler had called McCain's daughter to apologize in private.
Shah, like other administration officials who have addressed Sadler's remarks in recent days, emphasized the scourge of leaking.
“If you aren’t able, in internal meetings, to speak your mind or convey thoughts or say anything that you feel without feeling like your colleagues will betray you, that creates a very difficult work environment,” Shah said. “I think anybody who works anywhere can recognize that.”
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway claimed on Fox News Monday night that the White House has made progress in its war on leaks.
“It's not so much leaking as using the media to shiv each other, and that was going on quite a bit at the beginning of this administration, and it's less so now,” she said.
Conway's update on the status of White House leaking must be judged against her previous denial that staffers were trying to “shiv each other” in the early days of the administration.
“Think about how small our staff was and how small our budget was for a presidential campaign,” she said on CNN last February. “We breathe each other's oxygen in the foxhole. We were all very close. And all the palace intrigue stories for a White House that's just constant action, constant movement — they're just not true.”
Asked on Monday if she expects the president's anti-leak mission to include staff changes, Conway said, “I do, actually.”
Of course, the White House has gone through many staff changes already, and the leaks have continued.