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Leakers Who Leak About Leaks

Donald Trump successfully ran for the White House as a political outsider. It now turns out that he is an outsider inside the White House, too: His own staff is so disinterested in his success that it leaks about everything, including its own leaks.

Jonathan Swan, a reporter for Axios, reached out to some of his unnamed sources within the Trump administration to ask why the current White House is so leak-prone. The two main reasons cited were variations on a theme: frustration with leadership or personal power plays. Or, as one former senior White House official told Swan: “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores.”

Consider the recent story about Kelly Sadler, a White House aide who reportedly dismissed Sen. John McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel’s appointment as CIA director with the comment “he’s dying anyway.” Two of the people in that room anonymously confirmed the comment to The Associated Press; it was first reported at The Hill. At a meeting of the White House communications team in the days following, frustrated Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not condone Sadler’s tasteless remark, but she did berate the staff for the leak and its damaging effects. She reportedly said: “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting.”

We know this because of – you guessed it – another leak.

Leaks from a White House are nothing new. They generally fall into two types. Some are deliberate, even coming from a president himself, and are intended to further one of the commander in chief’s political or policy goals. The other sort, which are the kind that drive presidents crazy, are the ones that tend to thwart those goals.

It is a sign of this president’s learn-on-the-job approach to politics that since his inauguration there have been very few of the first sort of leak, and an endless deluge of the second.

It has gotten so bad that when I read political news in the relentlessly Trump-hostile New York Times, I sometimes wonder whether the paper’s bosses have actually imposed a house rule against identifying sources. Anonymous sources used to be reserved for sensitive material of sufficiently significant public importance that it outweighed the diminished credibility that comes from asking the audience to accept anonymous assertions on blind faith. Today’s news columns are filled with drivel about who threatened to quit over what, or what the president supposedly said when he allegedly went on a rant about someone who had disappointed him.

While a lazy and biased press eats this stuff up, and partisans on either side of the political divide react as they are intended to react, most of the public just turns away from this nonsense in disgust.

It came as no great shock when Obama-era holdovers like Sally Yates did everything they could to throw sand in the gears of a new administration whose policies are almost directly opposite to those of the one that hired them. Trump has a right to expect better, however, of the people who followed him through the White House doors once he unexpectedly received the keys.

If Trump were a typical professional politician, by now he would have accumulated a core staff who – if not admiringly loyal to him – had at least hitched their professional wagons to his rising star. They would be invested in his success; whether they liked him personally would be of no consequence. Hillary Clinton had such a staff. So did Barack Obama, and all of his elected predecessors in the White House going back at least to John F. Kennedy. (Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford assumed office midterm amid different circumstances.) Trump’s true loyalists amount to just a handful of family members and close aides who, like Huckabee Sanders, suffer a stream of brutal abuse for their trouble.

Dwight Eisenhower arrived at the White House as a political outsider, like Trump. But Eisenhower was a revered war hero and a former general with a lot of experience managing a team of competing high-powered egos. The only ego Trump had ever managed was his own.

The low state of our politics in general, and the toxic relationship between the current administration and its disloyal internal opposition in particular, strike me as particularly poignant as we approach this Memorial Day.

So many people sacrificed so much to give us the opportunity to choose our own leaders and set our own course. We are free to make our choices wise or foolish; their sacrifice came without strings attached. But they deserve better from us, and a duly elected president deserves better from the people he hires to help him succeed. The White House staff has no obligation to like the president, but it does have an obligation to faithfully serve him. Every executive deserves that much.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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