President Trump in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

It is another stomach-turning development in the vast, unfolding scandal that is the Trump administration: President Trump’s denigration of former FBI director James B. Comey to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office. In a New York Times article, Trump is quoted as saying, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Aside from the irony of the statement itself, it is appalling that an American president should be caught boasting about obstructing justice to the representative of a power that is so expert on the topic. Such is the mind-set of our Erdogannabe .

“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump went on. “That’s taken off.” So the president is delusional as well as dishonorable.

And yet. How in God’s name did the reporter gain access to a discussion in the Oval Office? According to the article, the “memcon” — the memorandum of conversation — was “read to The New York Times by an American official.”

Let that sink in. This is a document of very limited distribution. According to sources I consulted, it typically would not have even been given to the director of the CIA. This was a leak of an extremely sensitive and highly classified document by a very senior person.

There are a number of explanations for why leakers leak. They may be trying to kneecap a rival. Sometimes leakers are embittered or just want to look and feel important. The “nut job” leak suggests something different: a real attack on the president from within his inner circle. It was designed to reveal Trump as a foolish figure and expose him to charges of obstruction. Whoever read this material over the telephone to a reporter was playing for the highest stakes.

(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

He or she was also risking not only a career, but a prison term. If the leaker is exposed, this administration will give no quarter.

As someone who handled classified material during the George W. Bush administration, I can attest to the deadly seriousness of these matters. This type of high-level leak leaves the president and his inner circle unable to trust his team. It leaves foreign officials unable to feel confident in the confidentially of the highest-level diplomatic discussions. And it points to a foreign policy establishment that is making political judgments, which involve serious dangers.

I have no doubt that Trump himself created the snake-pit atmosphere in which leaks are incessant. He raises questions about his own staff in public, presumably to keep them on their toes. He sends out representatives to provide cover — putting their own credibility on the line — and then undermines them (see H.R. McMaster). He is, according to press accounts, a yeller who has staff hiding in their offices. He fires people in a humiliating fashion (see Comey). He belittles proud professionals (see the whole CIA). His administration is comprised of fiefdoms engaged in more-or-less open warfare. It is likely that some on the White House staff are staying only to collect material for the inevitable tell-all books.

The moral tone of the Executive Office of the President is set by the president, and this one is morally stunted. In Trump’s house of betrayal, leaks must seem the normal way of doing business. And leaks against the president probably come from officials reaching the limits of their patience with dysfunction.

All true. But still: A leak of classified material to damage the president is the abrogation of a professional standard, and the arrogation of democratic authority. It can lead to a very bad place, in which national security and law enforcement officials are engaged in payback or (worse) pursuing political goals beyond their remit. This undermines the authority of the institutions they serve by confirming the view, held by a significant number of Americans, that the “system” is somehow rigged.

We can all imagine circumstances in which whistleblowing is justified, involving the prevention of immediate and irreparable damage to the country. But there is a proper sequencing for such actions. They should come after normal processes fail. The United States has regular-order processes — involving a special counsel and congressional investigations — in place. We are at the start of Trump’s reckoning, not the end.

Public officials should not respond to the fraying of democratic norms by further unraveling them. The proper answer to Trump’s assault on institutions is to adhere to them more strongly. And the proper response of a staffer pressed beyond the limits of his or her conscience is not to leak but to resign.

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