West Wing Leaks Turn into Flood
After appointment of special prosecutor, White House staffers gripe to media about the boss
With the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special prosecutor for the so-called Russian investigation late on Wednesday afternoon, a fresh wave of leaks sprang from the West Wing.
This time the theme of the leaks wasn’t the eccentricities of the new president, as we often saw in the early weeks of the new administration of President Donald Trump.
“We can’t even wrap up one Russia fiasco before we’re on to the next one.”
Instead, it was a new kind of fear the president could not be managed, and that the end was nigh for many staffers, if not the president himself.
With a special prosecutor now ready to question even junior staffers about their knowledge of Russian hacking, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and more, The Washington Post didn’t have much problem coming up with a new Thursday headline on the alleged chaos inside the White House: “The worst job in Washington right now: Working for Trump.”
The Post’s sources were Trump staffers and supposed allies.
Some staffers were eager to let their archenemies in the predominantly liberal mainstream media know that they were ready to jump ship. Others told reporters the jolting last two weeks have the staff joking, nervously, about impeachment.
“Some White House staffers have turned to impeachment gallows humor,” the Post’s Ashley Parker wrote. “Other mid-level aides have started contacting consultants, shopping their résumés. And at least one senior staffer has begun privately talking to friends about what a post-White House job would look like, according to two people close to the staffer.”
The communications staff has been eager to convey the message that, while they are not perfect, Trump is not helping. The president reportedly likes “competing factions,” as the media often like to report. This breeds too much competition within the same team, and not enough with political adversaries.
Despite warning signs for months that Trump’s team considers itself warring factions of rivals, the perception didn’t seem to hit the president until early May, when a series of mistakes, blunders, and the termination of FBI Director James Comey caused the bough to break.
Trump fired Comey on a Tuesday afternoon, on May 9, without much notification given to his communications staff.
The press staff rushed to inform the media that the president had decided to fire Comey based on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
But the very next day, Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt the decision to fire the FBI director was his alone and that he had made the call before seeking the counsel of Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — undercutting his own team’s messaging.
Somehow, the White House got through that week. But then came Monday, when late in the afternoon, The Washington Post alleged that Trump shared highly classified material with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister about an ISIS plot to use laptop computers as bombs — intelligence reportedly gathered by Israel.
The White House seemed stunned. Then Tuesday afternoon came, when The New York Times alleged that Comey kept a memo on a February meeting with Trump.
Trump had told Comey, according to the report about the memo, that he “hoped” the FBI would drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. While most legal experts agree that does not constitute “obstruction of justice,” Democrats and Trump’s media enemies have suggested it might anyway.
By then, the West Wing staff was eager to tell reporters they were exhausted. The Wall Street Journal reported a “senior communications aide” was floating his (or her) résumé.
Teaching the President a Lesson
Perhaps the most damaging leak did not come from the communications staff.
It came on Monday afternoon, when an unnamed administration staffer, likely one outside the press team, told The Washington Post the tip that Trump had given classified information on ISIS to the Russians. The identity of one of the sources was said to be known by NeverTrump media personality Erick Erickson, who wrote that the source leaked to The Post to send a message to Trump.
“So some of the sources are left with no other option but to go to the media, leak the story, and hope that the intense blowback gives the president a swift kick in the butt,” Erickson wrote in the Resurgent. “Perhaps then he will recognize he screwed up. The president cares vastly more about what the press says than what his advisers say. That is a real problem and one his advisers are having to recognize and use, even if it causes messy stories to get outside the White House perimeter.”
What Erickson didn’t say was that the leak to The Post was highly illegal; a president speaking to foreign leaders about ISIS threats is not.
The Fire Extinguisher
After the Comey-memo news, one staffer sounded crazed.
“I feel like running down the hallway with a fire extinguisher,” one senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast, in response to an inquiry regarding Tuesday’s news that Comey kept detailed memos after each meeting with Trump.
The Daily Beast, in a late Tuesday report, actually produced a few choice remarks from anonymous White House officials who vented to the liberal publication. A senior official in the Trump administration, who previously worked on the president’s campaign, offered a foul-mouthed assessment of the fallout from the Monday-Tuesday news: “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely f***ed.”
The staff was numb from constant bad news, one aide told the Daily Beast.
“Every time I feel like we’re getting a handle on the last Russia fiasco, a new one pops,” a White House staffer told The Daily Beast on Monday evening, before the news about the Comey memo. On Tuesday, the staffer went back to the Daily Beast: “I guess I was wrong about the timing. We can’t even wrap up one Russia fiasco before we’re on to the next one.”
Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, did not immediately return a message from LifeZette about what the communications shop was doing to plug the leaks from unhappy staffers.
The situation is touchy with Trump’s surrogates, too. Two top Trump supporters told LifeZette they did not want to talk about the issue.
Let Trump be Trump?
Yet sometimes the worst place to be is inside the glass menagerie. After a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday, one regular White House correspondent remarked how well Trump did, and noted no one can defend Trump like Trump.
Perhaps it's true, although the media often said the opposite during the 2016 campaign and the early weeks of the campaign. Trump was bad at news conferences and often made gaffes, the media opined.
Yet on Thursday, Trump handled questions about Russia and the special prosecutor with dispassion and skill. It was a reminder that Trump has navigated the tight straits before — in 1990, when he was a billionaire near personal bankruptcy, and in 1990-1991, when he endured his first major feeding frenzy, as his marriage to Ivana Trump dissolved.