During the 2016 election, Donald Trump didn't just like leaks, he loved leaks. Or it might be more accurate to say that he loved it when confidential information became public, at least if it could be used to his advantage. In the last month of the campaign, he publicly praised WikiLeaks, which was releasing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic officials, no fewer than 164 times. But now that the leaks are coming from inside his government, he's changed his tune. "Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years," he tweeted. "Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!"
I've got some bad news for you, Mr. President: It's only going to get worse.
The story Trump and his Republican allies are settling on with regard to the deepening Russia scandal is that the real scandal is that we're learning about the scandal through leaks, not the scandal itself. He fired Michael Flynn (at least according to his spokesperson) for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, then went before the press and offered fulsome praise for Flynn, saying he's "a wonderful man" who "has been treated very, very unfairly by the media."
And he isn't just targeting the media. He's also going after the intelligence community, whom he presumes is the source of the leaks (or the "low-life leakers," as he calls them). But he doesn't actually know that's where the information about Flynn came from. It could have been the FBI, the Justice Department, or even his own White House.
But he's sure it's coming from the intelligence community, and launching bombs at them — which is not exactly what you do if you're trying to win the loyalty of that community. Meanwhile, we learned on Thursday that Trump is considering appointing Stephen Feinberg — a billionaire private equity magnate with no background in government or intelligence — to overhaul the American intelligence services. As The New York Times dryly noted, "Mr. Feinberg's only experience with national security matters is his firm's stakes in a private security company and two gun makers."
That too is a slap in the face to the intelligence community, a message that not only do they need overhauling, but that the president has such little regard for what they do that he thinks the overhaul should be run by one of his buddies who has zero experience in intelligence. It's just the latest in a long line of insults, which may be why intelligence briefers are reportedly intentionally withholding things from the president's briefings out of fear that he can't be trusted with sensitive information on their sources and methods.
That's obviously not healthy for anybody. But the fact is that when a president goes to war against his intelligence agencies, he shouldn't be surprised when they find ways to hit back.
That's just part of Trump's leak problem. Even more acute for him is all the leaks coming from his White House, which is a direct consequence of the chaotic situation he has created. Not only did Trump have no experience in government, most of his inner circle didn't either. The result is a West Wing beset by inefficiency, unclear lines of authority, and factional infighting. The more unsettled that atmosphere is, the higher the incentives everyone has to use the media to press their own advantage, whether it's about pushing out a rival or elevating their policy priorities.
And there may never have been a White House that started off not just leaking so much, but leaking so much that was so unflattering to the president. White House leaks have portrayed him as ignorant, confused, and erratic — and those are coming from the people he hired.
Leaks come in many forms. Some are pure whistleblowing, in which someone decides to expose government wrongdoing. Others are a strategic part of a PR campaign, in which the administration puts out information anonymously to give the impression that it's more valuable and hopefully get more dramatic play. Others involve officials using the media as a tool in bureaucratic battles, or just venting to reporters they're friendly with.
Every president hates leaks — Barack Obama was particularly aggressive in prosecuting leakers who revealed sensitive national security information. The difference with Trump is that the leaks he seems to want to investigate are the ones that reflect poorly on him. With Trump, everything is personal. But all indications are that in this administration there will be more leaks than ever — of all those types — whether Trump issues threats or not.