How Bill Clinton Stopped White House Leaks

And why the Trump administration will struggle to replicate his strategy.

Bill Clinton in 1994
Bill Clinton in 1994 (Wilfredo Lee / AP)

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy could have said, but all unhappy families are aleak.

This is the challenge for the Trump administration this week, as it faces the latest series of embarrassing disclosures from within. First, someone revealed to reporters that press aide Kelly Sadler had dismissed Senator John McCain’s opposition to CIA Director-select Gina Haspel, saying, “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

The comment was breathtakingly callous, even as a dark joke, and someone saw fit to tell reporters, either because they were out to get Sadler, or because they were appalled, or for some other reason. The specifics don’t matter a great deal: The point is that someone disclosed this remark from an internal meeting.

And leaks tend to beget more leaks. According to Axios, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called a meeting to scold staffers for telling reporters, but she added, “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting.” She was right: It did. Another press staffer, Mercedes Schlapp, decided to make leak lemonade with leak lemons, saying, “You can put this on the record … I stand with Kelly Sadler.” Needless to say, someone took her invitation and put this on the record.

On Monday, the president weighed in with an angry tweet-cum-ontological brainteaser:

Setting aside the by-now-commonplace, though no less dangerous, sloppy use of “treason” to denote anything the president doesn’t like, it is a mystery how leaks can be fake and yet also so dangerous.

The answer, of course, is that they are real, but Trump’s threat to find the leaker feels distinctively less real. The president, and his aides, have been threatening or promising to flush out leakers since the presidential campaign. The White House has banned cellphones. As part of unprecedented turnover, a series of staffers suspected of being press sources (most prominently Steve Bannon) has departed. There’s been tough rhetoric, too. While nothing has matched the deluge of news dumps of the first few months, embarrassing leaks from inside the West Wing have remained frequent.

On Monday, The Daily Beast even reported that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a controversial former National Security Council staffer, considered ways to surveil his colleagues in order to fight leaks, though the report did not determine whether he had done so. Ironically, Cohen-Watnick was reportedly leaking information to Representative Devin Nunes. Cohen-Watnick is now working at the Justice Department.

Axios’s Jonathan Swan even convinced some of his sources—leakers, if you will—to explain why they leak. He got a variety of explanations: personal vendettas; an attempt to gain an advantage in internal policy debates; the sense that if you don’t leak first, someone will leak about you. One reason in particular is especially jarring, because it indicates how negatively White House staffers view the administration: “to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.” (It’s useful to differentiate between leaks, the unauthorized disclosures made by staffers for various reasons, and “leaks,” when the administration intentionally pushes information out to reporters.)

The leaking problem in the Trump White House is perhaps unprecedented in scale, but not in type. Every administration leaks, especially at times of tension. The Obama administration aggressively targeted leakers, though mostly in executive-branch jobs outside the White House. So, at times, did the George W. Bush White House. In October 2003, Bush demanded that leaks stop. “News of Bush’s order leaked almost immediately,” The Philadelphia Inquirer deadpanned, echoing Sanders’s suspicion that her scolding would seep out.

Yet as I have written before, the history of the Bill Clinton White House is the most useful analogue for understanding the Trump administration. The early stretches of Clinton’s presidency were tumultuous, though not as tumultuous as Trump’s, as an impulsive new president oversaw a fractious and disorganized staff. Leaks were a particular problem for many of the same reasons that they are for Trump. Just like Trump, Clinton was driven to distraction and anger; just like Trump, he sometimes offered perverse incentives to leakers anyway.

“He’d come in and he’d see something in the paper and he’d be furious about it,” Marcia Hale, an assistant to the president, recalled for an oral history of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “He’d be furious about it but at the same time, he and other people—if you were quoted in the press all the time or if you were presumed to be influencing the press, it gave you clout and you got paid more attention to inside the White House.”

The Hillary Clinton-led task force on health-care reform was especially prone to disclosures. “Everything got leaked,” Alan Blinder, then an economic adviser, told the Miller Center. “So much so that it was as if Robert Pear, who was covering it for The New York Times, was sitting in these meetings. That had a very negative effect on the process.”

The Clinton team tried a variety of methods to stop leaks, including shrinking meetings (probably a good idea—the West Wing was overrun by too many staffers with too vague duties and too little structure, some veterans contend) and by trying to make meetings paperless so documents wouldn’t leak (with predictably paralyzing effects when dealing with complicated issues).

President Clinton also tried to launch investigations to smoke out who was leaking. (He apparently suspected George Stephanopoulos.) When Leon Panetta was appointed chief of staff in the summer of 1994—at roughly the same point in Clinton’s first term as the current moment in Trump’s—one of the first tasks that Clinton assigned him was to catch the leaker.

“I kept telling him, ‘Look, if we take our time and resources trying to figure out who the hell was leaking what, A, we’ll never really determine what happened, and B, it will divert us from the primary mission,” Panetta told me last year.

Panetta argued that trying to hunt for leakers was like trying to treat symptoms while ignoring the disease itself.

“The key for me I think was ultimately if I could build that sense of team within the White House, where people felt like they were part of a team and were loyal to that team, then the problem of leaks began to heal itself,” he said.

The effort seems to have worked. The White House continued to leak at times, as all do, but increased comity within the team helped Clinton win reelection and then weather impeachment during his second term.

On Tuesday, Meghan McCain, the View co-host and daughter of the senator, zeroed in on the lack of shared purpose among Trump staffers. “It’s always a sign of a bad campaign or a bad candidate or a bad politician when you have rampant leaking problems, because it shows that you don’t have loyalty to the principal or the message,” she said.

Creating a sense of cohesion in the Trump White House would be an even taller order than it was in the Clinton White House. Start with the president himself. Throughout his career in business, Trump was a frequent anonymous source for stories, sometimes about himself; at other times he infamously used pseudonyms. It is possible that Trump has totally changed his behavior since taking office, though if so it might be the only behavior he has radically altered. “Sometimes the person yelling the most about leakers is doing the leaking,” the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted Monday. Even if Trump isn’t intentionally leaking, his feelings often enter the press because of indiscreet conversations with friends outside the White House who convey them to reporters.

The Trump White House is distinctive for the degree to which the communications office leaks about the communications office, too—internecine feuds among spokespeople erupt into battles of leaks, which is peculiar. In one leak this week, Politico even reported that communications staffers don’t have confidence in Chief of Staff John Kelly’s ability to do interviews. (Panetta has long known Kelly and advised him early on in his tenure, but has more recently expressed misgivings about his work.)

Most importantly, however, the president seems uninterested in solving any of the conflicts that divide his staff and lead to leaks. He is content to allow policy battles to fester, repeatedly surprising his own aides with his decisions, or rendering them in ways certain to produce greater conflict. He refuses to fire staffers, even when angry with them; once they are gone, they often resurface to advise him informally. He is said to enjoy conflict, and he seems to be feeling more confident in his office, even as chaos swirls around him, giving him even less incentive to solve the problems.

As long as he is fostering an atmosphere conducive to leaking, however, no number of investigations will solve the dysfunction that plagues his unhappy White House family.