Aboard the White House’s leaky ship

A day after The Hill reported that a White House official had mocked the health of Arizona Senator John McCain in a private meeting, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded by scolding her communications staff, not primarily for the comment, but for the leak. “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting,” Sanders said Friday, according to Axios’s Jonathan Swan.

The Trump White House is many things, but a tight ship is not one of them. Throughout the 16 months of the administration, reporters have found no shortage of sources willing to talk about everything from internal policy discussions to infighting among staffers. The departures of Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus may have plugged a couple of holes, but new fissures seem to crack at any moment of tension.

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The circus surrounding special assistant Kelly Sadler’s callous remarks is just the latest example of a larger pattern. While it’s been more than a year since President Trump granted an interview to a non-Fox major network, journalists have used information provided by administration officials and friends of Trump to paint a picture of the president’s thinking.

In the midst of the fallout from Sadler’s comment, Axios’s Swan had a great idea: He asked his White House sources why they leak. “To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official told him. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.” Another White House official added, “The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate. By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”

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Of course, those working for the president aren’t the only ones responsible for slipping information to reporters. Though Trump has railed against leaks, he reportedly spends many of his evening hours calling up friends outside the White House to grouse and gossip. Some of those on the other end of the line have served as sources for journalists, allowing for reporting on the president’s current preoccupations and state of mind.

The prevalence of willing leakers in and around the White House has driven a never-ending stream of palace intrigue stories, but it has also helped keep the public informed about the mindset of a president who has retreated to friendly territory when it comes to one-on-one interviews. The leakers may be acting out of personal interest, but they’re also doing a public service.

Below, more on the White House’s leaky ship.


Other notable stories

  • A year ago, after Lester Holt’s interview with President Trump landed the network a major reporting scoop, NBC News was the toast of Washington. But The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan says a recent series of self-inflicted wounds at NBC and MSNBC are “symptoms of a larger malaise” at the networks. From not supporting Ronan Farrow’s reporting, to having to issue a major correction, to a much-criticized internal investigation, Sullivan sees a problem with leadership. “It’s hard to absolve NBC Chairman Andy Lack,” she writes.
  • The New York Times’s David Leonhardt realized he wasn’t quoting enough women in his stories, and his Sunday column examines how he (and all journalists) can do better. While acknowledging that certain fields are still dominated by men, Leonhardt writes that “journalists and other gatekeepers are letting themselves off too easily if they don’t admit their own role in the…problem.”
  • For CJR, Kelsey Sutton has the story of Medium’s frustrating decision to cut its membership program without giving its publishing partners much, if any, notice. “The cancellation of Medium’s membership option is in some ways a natural continuation of its January 2017 pivot away from advertisements and publisher-friendly monetization options, and toward its continued investment into its own subscription business,” Sutton writes.
  • The New York Times’s star White House reporter Maggie Haberman spoke with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner about covering Trump, her lack of concern over his threats against the press, and the toxicity of Twitter. “I think that Twitter is a useful reporting tool sometimes, but an utterly toxic swamp that nonetheless I engage in more than I probably should,” the prolific social-media user said.
  • Politico’s Jack Shafer looks at the business reasons for Alden Global Capital’s gutting of its newspapers. “For a preview of the newspaper industry’s coming death, turn your gaze to Colorado, where the withering and emaciated Denver Post finds itself rolling in profits,” Shafer writes.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.