The White House Is Leaky (But It's Not Totally Their Fault)

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, right, looks on as President Donald Trump speaks with Don Bouvet in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

There’s a debate raging over the leak of a private comment made by White House aide Kelly Sadler in which she, rather insensitively, made comments about the failing health of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).


On one side, reporters are shocked and dismayed a White House aide would be so cavalier in comments about a sitting senator battling an aggressive cancer. On the other, the White House has a leak problem, and staffers are getting a little tired of seeing their private comments in print.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders privately berated the White House communications and press staff Friday after a leak the previous day of comments by aide Kelly Sadler about Sen. John McCain, according to several sources familiar with the meeting.

In discussing McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel, Sadler, a special assistant who handles surrogate communications for the White House, said in a private meeting Thursday that it doesn’t matter “because he’s dying anyway.” It was a joke that fell flat, a White House official told CNN.
Despite publicly refusing to criticize the remark, Sanders told the press staff that Sadler’s comment was inappropriate, according to several sources familiar with the meeting.
During the dressing down, Sanders focused more on how the remark was leaked apparently in an attempt to target Sadler with a damaging story, one of the sources told CNN.
In the aftermath, Axios (who has been the happy recipient of a great deal of the leaked information) published an interesting piece (by reaching out to leakers that they admittedly use frequently as sources) about why this White House is behaving like a sieve:

This White House leaks like there’s no tomorrow.

  • The leaks come in all shapes and sizes: small leaks, real-time leaks, weaponized leaks, historical leaks. Sensitive Oval Office conversations have leaked, and so have talks in cabinet meetings and the Situation Room. You name it, they leak it.
  • My colleague Mike Allen, who has spent nearly 20 years covering the White House, says we learn more about what’s going on inside the Trump White House in a week than we did in a year of the George W. Bush presidency.
  • This White House leaks so much that meetings called to bemoan leaks begin with acknowledgement the bemoaning will be leaked, which is promptly leaked…by several leakers in a smallish room.

“Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.

  • Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.

Another leaker told Axios: “you have to realize that working here is kind of like being in a never-ending ‘Mexican Standoff.’ Everyone has guns (leaks) pointed at each other and it’s only a matter of time before someone shoots. There’s rarely a peaceful conclusion so you might as well shoot first.”


But it’s hard to blame them when there’s an outlet like Axios that presents itself as a reputable, trustworthy news outlet, but also puts out a call like this:

“I’m also told leaking is pretty fun. Give me a call if you’d like to try it out.”

If the White House is serious about tamping down leaks, it’s going to have to figure out how to incentivize staffers against talking to outlets like Axios, no matter how much “fun” it is.


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