The Trump administration is less than one month old and roiled by wave after wave of scandal, so that virtually every day brings news that would paralyze a normal government. On Monday night, national security advisor Mike Flynn resigned amid reports that he had lied to other members of the administration about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. On Tuesday night, The New York Times published a blockbuster report that “phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” This story has resurrected the unfinished business of Russian interference in the 2016 election, bolstering Democrats’ calls for further investigation into Russia’s actions and possible collusion by Trump’s campaign.
Trump reacted to the Flynn news by blaming the messengers, tweeting, “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” So we already knew how he would respond on Wednesday morning to the Times report:
Trump’s focus on the act of leaking is meant to deflect attention from the content of the leaks, and Republicans have followed suit. “In the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser,” Fox News reported, “President Trump and Republican allies on Capitol Hill are turning their attention to the potentially ‘illegal’ leaks that revealed Flynn’s politically fatal discussions with a Russian diplomat and other sensitive details from inside the administration.” Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told the network that he would “be asking the FBI to do an assessment of this to tell us what’s going on here because we cannot continue to have these leaks as a government.” White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said on Sean Hannity’s show, “If people are running to the media to leak and not providing that information to the proper authorities, that should concern all of us. This is not a partisan issue. It’s dangerous stuff.”
Some conservative outlets are even finding a way to blame former President Barack Obama. Breitbart claimed that “sleeper cells” of Obama administration holdovers were undermining the Trump White House, while Washington Free Beacon writer Adam Kredo floated a conspiracy theory that the Obama administration is behind the leaks:
Waging a war on leaks makes a certain amount of strategic sense. From Nixon to Obama, past presidents have found it politically expedient to crack down on leakers as a way of shoring up executive authority—while also, in the Obama administration’s case, selectively leaking information that reflects favorably on the president. It’s unlikely that Trump will show such finesse, or that he could even stop the leaks if he tried. Doing so requires a well-organized, generally loyal administration with a strong, clear chain of command—in other words, precisely the opposite of the Trump administration.
But Trump’s obsession with the leakers, and those who are eager to publish these leaks, is consistent with his longtime political strategy of demonizing the press and professional bureaucrats. The leaking issue allows him to pair these two alleged foes as a united enemy—a characterization his base will no doubt devour—and also allows him to have his cake and eat it, too: He can bemoan the “illegally given” information on the one hand, and then claim it’s all “fake news” anyway. Further, this obsession is also consistent with his propensity for conspiracy theories. The very anonymity of leakers makes it easy to portray them as shadowy conspirators plotting against him.
This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric, though. It’s also a reflection of Trump’s approach to governing. He’s being undermined by leakers because he doesn’t know how government works, is isolated and alienated from the professional bureaucracy, and has been slow in appointing his own people to key spots. The result is an utterly chaotic, confused administration—and where there’s chaos and confusion in government, there are usually leaks, too.
In rhetorical battles, Trump is most effective when he can name and define his enemy, be it “Low Energy” Jeb, “Little Marco,” or “Crooked Hillary.” Anonymous leakers can’t be given insulting nicknames—not ones that stick, anyway—and they certainly can’t be intimidated on TV or Twitter. There can also be no clear victory against so amorphous an enemy. So although Trump’s anti-leak crusade might please his base for now, it’s also making him look weak—like a commander who’s lost control of his troops, or an aging boxer who can no longer land a punch.