The phone calls are coming from inside the house, it seems. The newly minted Trump government has suffered under one of the most porous climates in recent Presidential memory, with leaks leaking to the press from seemingly everywhere. This is happening for several reasons, which include enabling technology for such leaks to occur, the controversial nature of our current President and some of his actions, and the fact that, whatever else one might want to say about President Trump, his administration is certainly active, meaning there is much more about which to leak. This has led to Trump, along with members of his team, making strange noises about a crackdown of these leaks. The threats incorporated in this crackdown have included FBI investigations (where many of the leaks have come from), random phone checks by the communications staff with Sean Spicer playing Angry Dad, and the promise of the purging of any longstanding government staffers suspected of leaking information to the press.
And, yet, the leaks persist. And they often persist in laughable ways. We already had Spicer’s phone-check and leak-plugging emergency meeting with his staff leak to the press. Now the Washington Post has an article all about the State Department’s memo that warned State staff against leaking anything to the press.
The State Department legal office prepared a four-page memo for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning of the dangers of leaking by State Department employees. It promptly leaked, to me. That’s only the latest sign that the relationship between the Trump administration political appointees and the State Department professional workforce is still very much a work in progress.
The Feb. 20 memo by State Department acting legal adviser Richard Visek to Tillerson is entitled “SBU: Protecting Privileged Information.” The SBU stands for Sensitive But Unclassified, a designation used on documents that are not technically secret but also not supposed to be shared. The memo itself is marked SBU and begins with detailed explanation of how and when Tillerson has the privilege of protecting certain types of information from public disclosure, such as anything that has to do with internal State Department deliberations. But the bulk of the memo is devoted to arguments for clamping down on unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information, also known as leaking.
One can only hope that whoever leaked the memo to the Washington Post chuckled to themselves as they did so — so tasty the irony was. Look, it’s understandable why a White House or government would be irritated by press leaks. But trying to wage some kind of war against them is only going to result in the administration looking very, very foolish, as it does in this story. Leaks have always been a thing in government. They always will be. Trump can shake his fist angrily at the clouds all he wants, but the rain will still come. Even Tillerson’s admittedly tightened grip over the State Department isn’t going to help.
Several State Department officials told me that they see evidence of an effort by Tillerson to stymie leaking is already underway. For example, detailed readouts of Tillerson’s meetings with foreign officials are no longer distributed widely inside the building, leaving officials in relevant bureaus unsure exactly what transpired. Another official told me Tillerson has shortened the list of officials allowed inside the daily 9:15 a.m. senior staff meeting, which has previously served as a key channel through which various State Department offices and bureaus learn about the day’s agenda and get direction from the secretary’s office. A third State Department official told me he was instructed to make requests for policy information and guidance over the phone or in person, rather than commit any policy discussions to an email that might be leaked.
Making government less efficient in the interest of plugging leaks works against good government operations and obviously isn’t solving the problem.
And, like so many things Trump, there’s no consistency in his anger on the topic. Trump was perfectly happy to discuss leaks from the DNC while on the campaign trail. In addition to that, members of both his campaign team and his administration are known to regularly leak information to the press for the purposes of steering media discussion in the President’s favor. As with so many things, it’s fine if Team Trump does it, but not anyone else.
Regardless, it sure will be fun to watch the White House attempt to keep press leaks from being a thing. After all, if you can’t even keep the memos about not leaking from leaking, the really good stuff is almost sure to come out.