As a former presidential staffer, I have little patience for leaks. Any president deserves and requires the ability to conduct policy discussions in private. Leaks are an abuse of power and position, generally by people who are unelected and self-serving.
But motivations matter, and the taxonomy of White House leakage is a worthy study. A surprising number of leaks are the result of simple vanity – the desire to appear in the know. Other leakers are trying to embarrass or sabotage a rival. Some leaks result from deviousness – the attempt to box the president in on a policy matter.
The exposure of a White House briefing document telling President Donald Trump “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Russia’s Vladimir Putin on his sham election victory – leaked after Trump congratulated Putin on his sham election victory – falls into a different category. It seems to have been motivated by desperation.
The circle of aides with access to the president’s briefing book – in the George W. Bush administration, a big, black binder sent along with the president to the residence each night – is small. The disclosure of an important briefing memo makes a leak investigation inevitable, and more likely to produce the culprit.
Someone at the White House, presumably on the national security team, has taken a large personal risk to call attention to Trump’s mysteriously cozy relationship with a strategic rival. This is just extraordinary – and extraordinarily frightening. In most administrations, the aides closest to the president have the greatest sense of loyalty. In this case, an aide close to the president is expressing panic. He or she cannot explain the hold that Putin has over Trump. This leak is a cry for help from within the White House itself.
It is not that the Trump administration has been entirely unwilling to take steps to counter Russian aggression. The provision of arms to Ukraine, for example, indicated a foreign policy apparatus still capable of pursuing American interests. The problem is Trump’s strange inability to confront Putin personally -- about his oppressive rule, the disruption of America’s electoral process, human rights violations and even attempted murder on the soil of a NATO ally. Trump’s initial instinct is to explain such abuses away.
It deepens the mystery that all of Trump’s political interests push in the opposite direction. A president pulled into an investigation of improper ties to Russia might be expected to distance himself from disturbing Russian behavior. Such public criticisms are an easy and cheap form of damage control. But at every stage, Trump has been dragged kicking and screaming into the pursuit of self-interest.
Trump has not provided an adequate explanation for his radical departure from the diplomatic norm. It is not enough to say, as he did in a recent tweet, “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.” Ronald Reagan’s diplomatic engagement of the Soviet Union did not translate into fawning subservience toward a dictator. Such self-abasement actually emboldens dictators. And it is rich for Trump to accuse other presidents of lacking “smarts” about U.S./Russian relations in the course of a foreign policy explanation at the length and level of a fortune-cookie saying.
Into this vacuum of plausible explanation have flooded other theories. “I think he is afraid of the president of Russia,” former CIA Director John Brennan recently speculated. “The Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult.” This might seem incredible, except for the fact that Trump’s first national security adviser (Michael Flynn) was forced out over blackmail fears, and one of his principle foreign policy advisers (Jared Kushner) has been denied top secret security clearance because he might be susceptible to undue influence.
It says something that the most innocent explanation for Trump’s attitude toward Putin is authoritarian envy. Trump seems to admire the strength and efficiency of personal rule. “At least he’s a leader,” Trump once said of Putin, “unlike what we have in this country.” A Trump adviser once leaked to The Washington Post: “Who are the three guys in the world he most admires? President Xi [Jinping] of China, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Putin.”
This now covers the range of likely options – from the influence of a foreign power to the thrall of a foreign ideology. In the absence of adequate explanation from Trump himself, it is up to Robert Mueller to provide clarity.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.