To understand Trump-team leaks, look at the leakers’ motives

Why We Wrote This

A list of potential questions for Trump from special counsel Mueller apparently was made public by the president's own side. That makes us wonder, why, and what does it say about a particularly leak-prone administration?

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (shown with President Trump in this 2016 file photo) has been advising the president in the wake of a leak of potential questions for Mr. Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller.

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All administrations leak to the press, but the Trump administration has been one of the leakiest in modern history. Why? Partly it’s the varied motives of high-level leakers. Veteran Washington think-tank presence Stephen Hess once drew up a leaker typology. There’s the ego leak, in which people try to look important to the press. There’s the trial-balloon leak, meant to judge reaction to a proposed action. There’s the whistle-blower leak, meant to stop something in its tracks. There’s the policy leak to draw attention to something the leaker believes to be unfairly ignored. All these are part of the Trump leak flow. But another biggie is the animus leak, in which one official or faction tries to damage rivals. This week’s NBC piece about Chief of Staff John Kelly calling the president derogatory names is an example. There’s perhaps a new category to add as well: the presidential leak, meant to get President Trump to focus on a particular issue – such as the dangerous questions special counsel Robert Mueller might ask if the president sits for a personal interview.

News leaks have bedeviled many US presidential administrations. Teddy Roosevelt loved dropping the press tidbits but was shocked when they weren’t printed verbatim. Richard Nixon hated leaks and formed an internal anti-leak Plumbers team, inadvertently leading to Watergate abuses. Barack Obama prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act (eight) than all previous occupants of the Oval Office – combined.

But under President Trump, White House leaks have reached a new level. They’re not just a means of looking important to a reporter, or dispatching a rival. In some instances, they’ve become a way to try and influence the decisions of one man, by highlighting stuff that’s probably already on his desk. That one person, of course, is Mr. Trump himself.

There’s also the volume. Leaks flow in the Trump White House like water over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls.

“I do think the Trump case is really unusual,” says David Greenberg, professor of history at Rutgers University and author of “Republic of Spin.”

Particularly unusual is the latest big drop of information – a lengthy list of questions that special counsel Robert Mueller might ask the president in a potential personal interview for Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential campaign.

It’s possible that the list was leaked by the special counsel’s office, but that’s unlikely. Mr. Mueller’s team has been closed-mouthed to this point. And The New York Times, which obtained the document, said it was a list drawn up by Trump’s legal team from a conversation with prosecutors. But someone outside Trump’s legal team leaked the document, said the Times.

Pro tip: Always remember that the reporter knows exactly who the leaker is. The reporter’s editors have a pretty good idea of the person’s importance, though they may not know exact identity. A reputable publication will play the piece accordingly, and try to describe the leaker as closely as they can. (There’s a journalism legend that during Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy phase a weary journalist wrote of an anonymous quote from “a US official with a German accent on the secretary of State’s plane.”)

Trump’s recently departed lawyer John Dowd fits the above criteria. He was known for arguing that the president should refuse to sit for an interview with Mueller, due to the breadth, length, and difficulty of questions he would face. Trump reportedly rejected this advice. The New York Times leak might be a way for Dowd – or another associate – to metaphorically grab Trump by the shoulders and try to shake him up about the seriousness of his situation.

It’s possible that the questions represent a simple wrap-up. Mueller may be close to ending his investigation, and, if he talks to the president, would just go down his list of all the subjects he’s touched on to get a Trump comment at the end.

That’s not what former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti thinks, however. In a lengthy review of the questions on Twitter he points out they cover possible collusion as well as possible obstruction of justice.

“The questions are very revealing – they’re a roadmap of Mueller’s view of Trump’s potential criminal liability,” Mr. Mariotti tweets

That’s just one view, of course. Trump and his legal team have long insisted on his complete innocence of any wrongdoing. But again, the investigation has reached a serious point, and someone in Trump’s orbit apparently wants to warn him away from meeting Mueller and thinking he’ll sway the special counsel with his personal interaction skills.

Rudy Giuliani, himself a former federal prosecutor who’s helping Trump, said today that any such interview would have to be limited to “two to three hours” and be based on a “narrow set of questions.” That would be a very different meeting than Mueller apparently has in mind.

As to other leaks that roil the Trump team, a more traditional category stands out: the animus leak.

The name comes from a leak typology drawn up decades ago by the former White House staffer and veteran Washington think tank presence and commentator Stephen Hess.

There’s the ego leak, Mr. Hess wrote, in which people try to look important to the press. There’s the trial-balloon leak, meant to judge reaction to a proposed policy or action. There’s the whistleblower leak, meant to stop something in its tracks. There’s the policy leak, to draw attention to something the leaker believes to be unfairly ignored. All these are part of the Trump leak flow.

The animus leak involves a practice as old as politics – spreading dirt on your enemies and rivals within the government. Think of all the negative stories about former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster that surfaced before their involuntary departures. Many of those might be traced to people within the White House with whom they clashed – including each other.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is the latest animus leak target. This week’s NBC story detailing alleged instances of his demeaning Trump to colleagues is a case in point. That’s meant to lower his (already low) stock in the Oval Office. Who’s the source? That’s unknown, but Kelly has made many enemies with his attempts to impose discipline on the daily White House workflow. That’s upset powerful people, including Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner.

Infighting isn’t unusual, notes Dr. Greenberg of Rutgers. But some administrations keep that quiet. Some don’t.

“In any administration, even the most unified, there are going to be different camps and differences of opinion,” he says. “There is not a single voice, there are many.”

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