The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Enough about ‘sources,’ Mr. President

President Trump during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Sunday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

In May 2018, the New York Times quoted a “senior White House official” in a story about President Trump’s diplomacy vis-a-vis North Korea. That official appeared to contradict the president himself, who’d expressed some optimism that a meeting with Kim Jong Un could take place by June 12 of that year. The day before, that White House official “told reporters that even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.”

Trump took note:

Actually: That senior White House official spoke to about 250 reporters — about 200 of whom were on a conference call — on a “background” basis, meaning the reporters agreed not to use the official’s name. “It is not clear whether the president was simply unaware of the actions of his own senior staff or if he knowingly ignored the truth,” wrote the New York Times.

A normal president, if scorched in such patent fashion, might just bail on his tactic of questioning reporters’ sources. This aberrant president has responded in his usual facts-be-damned fashion, continuing his reckless attacks:

In Saturday’s coronavirus briefing/media-criticism seminar, Trump returned to this already-overdone theme. It all started with an attack on New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman, who had written a story about how Mark Meadows gets emotional during discussions at the White House. Contradicting himself, Trump railed, “They made it sound — I said, ‘Mark’ — and it’s okay if he did. I wouldn’t — you know, look. But I think he was crying probably — really, for the wrong reason they had it down. But he’s not a crier. And if he was — I know criers. I could tell you people that you know that are very famous. They cry, and that’s okay too.” Trump proceeded to call the story that he’d just confirmed “fake news.”

Then it was source time:

And they make up — I said it today; they make up words. “Sources say …” Most often used: “Sources say …” You know what “sources say” means? “Sources say” means they have nobody. And they make it up. Okay?
And they have a few other type statements that mean the same thing. But “sources say” is the most often-used express- — in The Washington Post; New York Times, especially; CNN — fake news. CNN.
They should really be mandated, and I mean mandated to use a name. If there’s a source, use a name. Say that Kayleigh — “Kayleigh McEnany said …” or somebody. And you’d find out that the — number one, the source wouldn’t say it. The sources don’t exist. I don’t believe the sources exist.

As with many of Trump’s foolhardy mantras, this one embeds a pair of clear-cut ironies. The most explicit one pertains to mendacity: Trump appears to equate on-the-record comments with trustworthiness. It’s not a bad principle, as folks generally speak a bit more honestly when they know that their name is attached to their comments. That principle, however, is under siege in Trump’s White House, as he and his aides have spoken falsehood after falsehood. The credibility gap between unnamed “sources” and named officials, accordingly, is now narrower than it ever has been. Especially when Trump himself is doing the on-the-record talking.

The other screwball component here pertains to reprisals: Trump has declared war on leakers. As of the end of 2019, the “Trump administration had indicted eight government employees and contractors in three years for leaking classified information to journalists,” according to a recently released report by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. for the Committee to Protect Journalists . That should not surprise anyone who has followed Trump’s nonexistent belief in accountability, including his history of imposing absurd nondisclosure agreements on aides and employees. Trump’s 2016 campaign NDA even extended to stuff that “Mr. Trump insists remain private or confidential.”

Cracking down on leaks is by no means a policy innovation of the Trump administration. President Barack Obama established a grim precedent in this policy area, as his people pushed nine or 10 of these leak prosecutions, depending on how you count. In addition, the Obama administration seized phone records of the Associated Press in a leak investigation and even identified then-Fox News reporter James Rosen as a potential co-conspirator in a criminal leak as it sought records of his work.

If left to his own devices, Trump would likely swamp journalists in leak prosecutions. In 2017, after all, he passed along a chilling message to then-FBI director James B. Comey: “Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates,” reported the New York Times.

Nearly a year ago, the Trump Justice Department indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for alleged offenses including “conspiracy to receive national defense information,” “obtaining national defense information” and “disclosure of national defense information.” The charges relate to Assange’s work a decade ago in securing classified documents through then-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Whatever your opinion of Assange, the indictment seeks to criminalize the same work done by investigative reporters every day. Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron took note:

And let’s not forget the Ukraine whistleblower. He didn’t leak to the media; he passed along his findings to the intelligence community’s inspector general. The allegations in the complaint — that Trump abused his power vis-a-vis Ukraine relations and that the White House attempted to cover up the scandal — were borne out in subsequent impeachment proceedings. How did Trump respond to the complaint? “The whistleblower defrauded our country, because the whistleblower wrote something that was totally untrue,” he said at a December 2019 rally. Oh, and Trump recently sacked the inspector general who handled the whistleblower complaint.

Classic Trump: Just as he cites a “mandate” for on-the-record sources, he makes them ever more impossible to secure.