The Trump Administration is right to worry about leaks — and, boy, is it worried. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Armed Services committee that leaks are “devastating.” At a press briefing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said they were “undermining the ability of our government to protect this country.” Never has an American administration been so unable to stem the flow of unauthorized information and so helpless to protect confidences in government. When Sessions spoke of the “staggering number” of leaks, he was not exaggerating.
Unfortunately, Sessions, Coats and the rest of the Trump Administration are wrong about the solution. The answer is not to crack down on leakers, as the government now swears it will do. The answer is to crack down on Donald Trump.
Leaking makes governing harder. Politicians and their staffs cannot function unless they can interact candidly, and candor requires privacy. As Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, likes to say: Imagine how your conversation with your spouse about your Christmas party guest list would sound if you had to conduct it on Facebook. Delicate negotiations in Congress or the White House need space for trial balloons, plausible deniability and strategic maneuvering — without being immediately shot to pieces by outside interest groups and the media. All of that is before considering the importance to national security of keeping state secrets, well, secret.
No wonder, then, that the recent leak of full transcripts of Trump’s private conversations with two foreign leaders, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, caused bipartisan dismay. Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, spoke for many when he called the release disgraceful. “A president of the United States or a governor [which Warner once was] would tell us they’ve got to be able to have confidential conversations,” Warner told The Daily Beast. As of now, foreign presidents and prime ministers need to assume that conversations with the U.S. president may all potentially become public.
One result will be a diminution of candor, and a commensurate increase in grandstanding and playing to the public back home. A second result will be that the parties, seeking privacy, will banish note-takers and record-keepers when they can. Trump has already done that. He has conducted two meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin without any U.S. note-taker present. Eliminating the record not only blinds future historians, it leaves today’s policymakers unsure of what was said, or who committed to do what, or how to respond.
For those reasons and others, Sessions was right to deplore what he called the culture of leaks. What he was wrong about was the solution: tripling the Justice Department’s leak investigations. “In the first six months of this administration,” he announced, “the Department of Justice has already received nearly as many criminal referrals involving unauthorized disclosures of classified information as we received in the previous three years combined.”
Cracking down on the supply of leaks won’t work, except at the margins. Most of the time, leakers are hard to find, and proving a criminal case is even harder. The effort to find them can itself chill internal candor and conversation; as we recall from Nixon’s “Plumbers,” the attempt to plug leaks may lead to other kinds of abuse or even lawbreaking. And in the age of Wikileaks and digital encryption, there have never been so many ways to unload anonymous information.
Here is what would work: Reduce the demand for leaks. Leaking is happening at an unprecedented rate because an unprecedented number of people in the government are desperate to do it.
In the world’s most porous information society, leaking is not primarily deterred by law. Rather, it is forestalled by respect for ethical norms about keeping secrets, respect more generally for the president and his government, and an ability to air and address problems through approved, non-public channels.
President Trump’s own violations of basic norms about secrecy have dwarfed those of anyone who works for him. He publicly called upon Russia to spy on his political opponent and leak the result. He proclaimed his “love” of Wikileaks. He discussed highly classified information with the Russians (a fact we know, ironically, because of a leak). He discussed sensitive national security matters at a restaurant table amid onlookers. Nothing about his conduct signals seriousness about handling sensitive information or respecting boundaries of privacy.
More broadly, his erratic and deviant behavior has violated all kinds of norms of presidential conduct. Think about the president who uses his Twitter account to demean his own attorney general, or who exploits a Boy Scouts gathering to give a blatantly political speech, then ask yourself why anyone working for him would feel the need to scrupulously observe boundaries.
Perhaps most important, the President’s chaotic style and insistence on sycophancy often mean that serious problems do not get addressed until they turn up on the front page of the Washington Post. You couldn’t invent a more serious security risk than having a national security adviser who might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Trump knew about that for 18 days and did nothing — until a leak forced his hand.
If people in government believe that the President is not competent or not on the level, or that the only way to address problems or protect the country is by leaking, they will leak. And leak. And leak. As, indeed, they often should. In our democracy, unauthorized disclosure is a safeguard of last resort.
How could the Trump Administration prevent it? Don’t keep reaching the last resort. Establish some semblance of normal, ethical, orderly government. Set an example of probity and regularity. There is only one person in the government who can do that.
Look for the leaks to continue.