Monday 22 January 2018

Trump and his aides really despise anonymous leaks - unless they are doing the leaking

White House press secretary Sean Spicer confiscated colleagues’ phones. Photo: AP
White House press secretary Sean Spicer confiscated colleagues’ phones. Photo: AP

Margaret Sullivan

US President Donald Trump and his aides despise and condemn anonymous leaks to reporters. Except, of course, when they are the ones doing the leaking.

On the 'Fox and Friends' programme yesterday on Fox News, the president blamed President Barack Obama (and friends) for recent leaks, which Mr Trump called "really serious because they are very bad in terms of national security."

He has sicced the Justice Department on inside-government leakers.

And his press secretary, Sean Spicer, confiscated his staff's phones in an emergency internal-leak crackdown.

Sounds serious, doesn't it? But just offstage, quite the contrary.

Highlights of last night's address to Congress were anonymously provided to the conspiracy-mongering Infowars site.

(The "story" - excellent stenography! - includes this bizarre disclaimer: "It should be noted this was not a leak, but was given directly to Infowars.")

Last weekend, the White House enlisted two unnamed sources - "a senior intelligence officer in the Trump administration" and "a senior member of the intelligence community" - to talk to reporters, as part of an effort to knock down a 'New York Times' story about Mr Trump associates' contact with Russia.

And White House "background" briefings continue as always, meaning that White House officials are - by design - quoted in news stories as anonymous sources.

The result, especially for the average news consumer, is mind-spinning.

"It's almost impossible to know whether an unnamed source is someone courageously taking a risk to get information out or a powerful official who is eluding responsibility," New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said in an interview.

And, he added, "you could have both of these kinds of unnamed sources in the same news story - maybe in the same paragraph."

Yes, the Trump media strategy is looking more and more like a hall of mirrors, where real leaks provide what the president blasts as "fake news" - but that same news, vociferously denied, can get a top official fired, as with the former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In this fun house, a president who, during the campaign, proclaimed "I love WikiLeaks!" because that organisation's leaks were causing political damage to his opponent, now bemoans the dangers of leaks that cause political damage to him. Journalists "shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name," Mr Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Strange-but-true sentences in news stories point out the contradictions.

"Two of those officials spoke on the condition of anonymity - a practice President Trump has condemned," wrote Greg Miller and Adam Entous of 'The Washington Post' in the Russia story mentioned earlier.

And in the Associated Press (about an executive order on environmental regulations): "The official briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, despite the president's recent complaints about unnamed sources."

Beyond the inconsistency lies a strategy - chaos, distraction and contradiction serve the president well. The keep-them-guessing school of political communication.

"Not caring about the confusion certainly is part of Trump's political style," Rosen said.

Of course, not all leaks are created equal.

There are true leaks, like the partial Trump tax return sent anonymously in the US mail to a 'New York Times' reporter during the campaign.

As Glenn Greenwald of the 'Intercept' wrote recently, some of these can be both serious crimes and wholly justified. In the Flynn case, "the leaks revealed that a high government official blatantly lied to the public about a material matter - his conversations with Russian diplomats - and the public has the absolute right to know this."

Then there are leaks that are really plants from government sources (sound familiar, Infowars?) and, third, an in-between category that Columbia University law professor David Pozen calls "pleaks". These may emerge in dogged reporting from confidential sources.

It's hardly new that American presidents both decry leaks and use them.

But in the extremes of behaviour on one side and rhetoric on the other, Mr Trump may be setting a new standard for trying to have it both ways.

Irish Independent

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