“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.