The latest anonymous leak/news story, the New York Times’s “nut job” scoop, troubles me for at least three reasons. First, it’s disturbing that this kind of leaking occurs. In one week, among other leak-grounded stories, (1) Politico reported, based on a leak that must have originated with someone close to President Trump, that the president screamed at the television in response to a story about the FBI’s Russia investigation and asked aides why it wouldn’t go away; (2) the Washington Post reported that, at a meeting with very few attendees, Trump told Russian officials about confidential information obtained from a foreign government; (3) the New York Times reported what Trump apparently said to Russian officials about Comey and the FBI investigation at the same meeting.
In the case of the “nut job” leak, someone in the administration reportedly read quotations from the confidential memo that memorialized what was said during the meeting.
I don’t see how an administration can function effectively in the face of this kind of leaking about what the president says and does in private or highly confidential settings.
It has been said that, in contrast to the mainstream media, Trump’s supporters took their man seriously, but not literally. It’s difficult, though, to take seriously a president who can’t stop leaks about how he reacts to what he sees on television or what he says in private meetings with the Russians.
It’s even more difficult when that president rode into the White House in part on a reputation for toughness and the ability to exercise control over subordinates. He was going to “drain the swamp.” Instead, he seems, inadvertently, to be cultivating one inside the White House.
Second, as Scott argues, it is troubling that Trump would crudely insult James Comey, a patriotic if sometimes misguided public servant, when talking to foreign officials, especially officials of a non-ally or an adversary. This isn’t Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill having nothing to hide from one another. This is, as Scott says, the president talking to the Russians as though they are his (and our) trusted friends.
Why did Trump choose to do so? Not, I hope, because he actually considers the Russians his trusted friends. But the most plausible alternative explanations aren’t reassuring either.
One is insecurity, the same force that seems to drive his constant boasting. Another is that Trump, in saying he no longer feels pressure over Russia, was signaling a new flexibility in dealing with Putin and his government. This would be the rough equivalent of when President Obama told Russia’s president he would be more flexible once the 2012 election was over.
Trump’s statement would be less objectionable in one sense because it would not demonstrate an intent to deceive the American electorate. But it would suggest that the political pressure Trump faces over Russia has influenced his policy up until now — a rather damning admission.
Third, Trump’s statement about the pressure over Russia being relieved appears to reflect a serious miscalculation of the impact of firing Comey. The firing created a political maelstrom which had congressional Republicans, as well as the Deputy Attorney General, running for cover.
Trump’s statement to the Russians seems to confirm reports that Trump thought there would be little criticism of the Comey firing, given that Democrats don’t like him. The naivety of that view is staggering.
It’s true that with the appointment of Robert Mueller, things have calmed down and probably will become calmer yet in the medium-term. But Rosenstein hadn’t appointed Mueller (or, reportedly, told Trump he would do so) when Trump met with the Russians. In any event, there would have been no need to appoint Mueller to calm things down had Trump not sacked Comey.
Before the sacking, the Trump administration was, to some degree, at the mercy of a tough prosecutor-type over whom it had some control. Now, the Trump administration is, to a greater degree, at the mercy of a tough prosecutor-type (from the same “school” of prosecution at the previous guy) over whom it has virtually no control and who would be more difficult to discredit. In addition, Trump’s standing, including among congressional Republicans, has been harmed.
A successful presidency does not depend on major legislative accomplishment in the first 100 days. It depends more on establishing a stable, loyal team and gaining public confidence by avoiding unforced errors during the early days of an administration.
To accomplish these two things, President Trump needs quickly to step up his game.