In the thirteen days since President Donald Trump was sworn in, headlines have screamed about mass dismissals at federal agencies, tense phone calls with world leaders, and a commander-in-chief who stewed for days over coverage of his inauguration crowd size.
Many of these unflattering details about the turmoil at the White House and inner psychology of the President have come from a steady stream of anonymous leaks. Presidential historians and veteran political journalists agree they’re unlike anything they’ve seen before.
“I can’t recall having seen a situation where there appears to be so much leaking of such an intimate nature in such a short period of time,” Russell Riley, expert on presidential history at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told TPM.
“I think typically there is an enormous amount of care on the part of the White House staff not to do anything to undermine the President,” he added.
Bill Keller, the longtime former editor of The New York Times and current editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, said he’d seen “nothing remotely like” the leaks coming out of the Trump White House over the course of his career.
The political observers who spoke to TPM said that leaks typically tend to filter out months into an administration, after senior officials have cultivated relationships with individual reporters. Points of crisis also tend to produce an unusual volume of leaks, as officials scramble to shift blame and distance themselves from administration policies with which they disagree.
Asked for historical analogies for the publication of this volume of anonymously-sourced information, those experts pointed to several rock-bottom points in U.S. presidential history.
Both Riley and Margaret Thompson, a professor on the modern presidency at Syracuse University, pointed to Richard Nixon’s administration in the lead-up to the Watergate scandal. Thompson mentioned the so-called “plumbers” Nixon hired to stop the leaking of classified information after the Pentagon Papers were published, several of whom were later implicated in Watergate.
Len Downie, a former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw coverage through seven presidential elections, referenced George W. Bush’s second term, when his popularity declined precipitously, as a time of particularly heavy leaking.
“As administrations run down in national security crises situations, like during the Iraq War period, you saw the State Department and the Defense Department and the intelligence communities leaking in defense of themselves and in opposition to policies they didn’t like,” he said.
Less than two weeks into the Trump administration, staffers at federal agencies have been taking a similar approach. Drafts of executive orders have been leaked to the press days before they are made public. Anonymous officials said that Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly learned that Trump was moving forward with his travel ban on immigrants and refugees because an official on his briefing call happened to see Trump signing it on television. Military officials told Reuters that insufficient intelligence and ground support crippled Trump’s first military operation in Yemen, in which a NAVY Seal and 8-year-old American girl were killed.
Either oblivious to or uninterested in the traditional channels through which executive decisions are made, Trump is blazing ahead with huge policy changes like the travel ban, reportedly without consulting officials essential to the successful rollout of those policies.
Trump “basically ran against the establishment and the establishment works for him now and they’re not all contented employees,” Keller said by way of explanation. “I think they feel less of the initial loyalty they’d feel to a new president because he’s basically told the world he doesn’t think much of them.”
Keller added that the Trump administration’s “tricky relationship with the truth” has also pushed career civil servants to try to “set the record straight.”
“He’s kind of created a whole government of fact checkers,” he cracked.
Senior Trump staffers who could quash such leaks are stymied by their own lack of government experience and the ongoing clashes between warring factions trying to get the President’s ear, experts told TPM.
Former Post editor Downie said that all recent presidents with the exception of Jimmy Carter and now Trump came into office “with a strong, White House-centric message control right from the outset.”
“It’s not clear that the chief of staff has been empowered by the president to nip this in the bud and it has to come from the top,” the Miller Center’s Riley said of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
“You’ve got so many sources of power at the head that its difficult for any one of these individuals to exert control over the entirety of the White House operation,” Riley added.
Trump’s attentions are divided between the brash, nationalist approach of senior advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the more restrained style of Priebus and Vice President Mike Pence, and the advice of son-in-law Jared Kushner, the White House adviser to whom he is reportedly closest.
Former Trump adviser Michael Caputo told Politico that administration officials are struggling to locate the spigots dribbling this information out.
“Trying to nail down who the leakers are is like trying to count the cockroaches under the couch,” he said.
Whether Trump is himself perturbed by the leaks, or even believes they are occurring, remains an open question. A White House spokeswoman did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.
Though he fired off several tweets calling the Times and Post “dishonest” after their weekend reporting on the travel ban, the President has also dismissed reports anonymously citing his top aides as “fake news.”
Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of public communication and history at American University, argued that the leaks only serve as confirmation of the aggressive, bull-in-a-china-shop attitude of a President who wears his opinions on his sleeve.
“What’s remarkable is that you don’t even need those leaks coming out of the White House,” Steinhorn said. “This stuff is really front and center: his psychology, his insecurities, his neuroses, what keeps him up at night—he’s not hiding that from anyone. There is no filter with this man.”