Trump White House Looks To Quash 'Deluge' Of Leakers

Aug 4, 2017
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There are leaks, and then there are leaks. Someone provided full transcripts of President Trump's private conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia from early in his administration. There were testy moments. The Washington Post published both transcripts in full.

Some say this was great journalism, but Trump and presidents before him have said such leaks are dangerous. Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced at an event this morning that his department has been going after leakers far more aggressively.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop.

GREENE: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is on the line. And David, no White House is airtight, but it feels like more is coming out of the Trump White House. Is that fair?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Oh, it's a deluge. I mean, I think that you've seen leaks that are done because it's an undisciplined White House. I think you've seen leaks that have played out because there's incredible factionalism between people affiliated more with Steve Bannon or with, for a while, Reince Priebus until he left as chief of staff or Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser.

And I think you've also seen leaks because there's a significant cadre of people within the federal government, the administration that have looked at this norm-wrecking administration in its first six months and taken real issue with how it's gone about its business. And so there are these three impulses that have led to an astonishing level of leaks, the kind that Presidents George W. Bush and President Obama really sought to ensure didn't happen.

GREENE: Well, so, I mean, presidents will often say any leaks are dangerous. Journalists will always say that leaks are the way to do great reporting. I mean, is there some standard or some line when more and more people might say, OK, this is getting out of hand in some way?

FOLKENFLIK: I think you saw a lot of concern about the leaks of President Trump's conversations with these world leaders - with the president of Mexico, the prime minister of Australia - even though it highlighted the contradictions between what he said privately and what he said publicly - in some ways, because of that fact, because world leaders do have to be able to say things in private to try to get things done, to advance agendas, to strike deals. And that's not something that can always be done transparently. So you saw even Democrats, people like Tommy Vietor, the former spokesman on national security issues for the Obama administration, say this is too much; this is getting dangerous, folks.

GREENE: Well, what - is there a litmus test if you're inside a newsroom at The Washington Post or, say, The New York Times or, say, here, where we work at NPR, when you get information and are considering, you know, whether to go with it and publish or not?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look; you know, there was this moment where Anthony Scaramucci, who was for about a minute and a half the communications director for the White House...

GREENE: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: ...Said to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, look; I've got to know who gave you this information. Who leaked? I'll fire the entire communications staff if you don't tell me. You're an American, too. You've got to tell me. That's not the way, usually, journalists think. What they'll say is, you know, is there going to be actual harm done? Our default setting has to be we publish information that is valid and connected to the understanding of the American public with the government that does things in their names.

But you know, on major national security kinds of things and other things - legal matters, things that divulge personal information - they're going to go to either government officials or the people involved and say, make the case. If there's a reason we shouldn't publish, let us know. But the default for journalists is we want the public to understand how their government works and why.

GREENE: So some news today - the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is holding this event - I guess it's worth noting certainly not the first Justice Department, the first president to go after leakers.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's certainly something that President Trump has wanted for a long time now. We shouldn't forget that President Obama eight times used the Espionage Act to go after such leaks. And there's been not only increased willingness to use the legal tools that he has at hand, but there's also extraordinary technological abilities to track people's interactions, you know, with metadata in such a way that you don't have to tail somebody to figure out what park bench they're getting information on during lunchtime. You can really just understand how people connect, when they do and what kinds of information they're getting.

GREENE: All right, so Justice Department certainly has the tools to find out who's doing this. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks as always, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.