There’s a new sheriff in town. He has strapped on his shooting irons and has been hunting down varmints — varmints right in the ranch house.
The sheriff is Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, and the varmints are the “leakers.” Watch out!
Scaramucci has threatened to fire people. He says he may be contacting the FBI and the Justice Department. He has also hinted that the leakers are high officials who are using juniors to contact the press.
This is a strange interpretation of “communications.”
The White House is leaking because it isn’t talking coherently. The Trump administration is not rooted in policy or philosophy, and the White House staff is divided against itself; a deeply unhappy place wanting in direction and internal clarity.
So, it leaks. It leaks for personal reasons. It leaks for patriotic reasons. It leaks out of frustration. And it leaks because no one is in charge administratively: too many assistants — including Scaramucci — are reporting directly to the president, eschewing the line of command that normally flows through the chief of staff and the national security adviser. With Scaramucci on the loose, Reince Priebus is chief of staff in title only: a male nipple.
The communications failure is enormous and extends down to the inability of the press office to answer simple questions, like who was playing golf with the president? One wouldn’t assume this to be a state secret, but reporters ask and get no answer. They aren’t rebuffed, they’re just not answered.
In this instance, a question not answered is a revelation of another sort: the communications staff members are willfully kept in the dark. It isn’t claimed that state secrets and initiatives are being discussed on the greens. It’s a simple matter of the president’s recreation. Is Trump ashamed of the company he keeps?
The avalanche of leaks are cries for clarity in a chaotic administration. They are the symptoms, not the disease.
The leaks may just get worse. But the mechanics or leaking will get more inventive as Scaramucci ferrets around, suspecting his colleagues who will live in increasing fear.
Leaking is as old a journalism and was going on long before the invention of movable type. Journalists regard it with equanimity, as part of the trade, an integral part of the job — also as part of their right to collect the news, and the public’s right to know.
However, leaking does have large consequences when it comes to how the government makes decisions. The anti-leakers have a point here: Nowadays, ideas can’t be batted about inside government with abandon. Particularly, they can’t be committed to writing without the fear of them getting into the press.
Leaking classified information is criminal. WikiLeaks troubled many journalists; delicate choices in a democracy.
But that’s not what Scaramucci is fishing for; he wants to end the embarrassment of the president.
For those who keep secrets, technology has made the job a thousand times harder. When I was a young reporter, a congressman or White House staffer wishing to show you some document — to leak it — either had to tell you what it said or allow you to see and copy it by hand. This was risky, as only a few hands would’ve had access to the document or letter.
The Xerox machine changed that instantly, and the arrival of the digital age put a leak a keystroke away. Privacy and secrecy aren’t what they used to be.
But the hunt-and-kill mission Scaramucci is on won’t stop this White House — this seething hive of fear and ambition, this policy free for all, this scarcely controlled chaos, this gyre of half-formed purposes — from leaking.
With Sheriff Scaramucci nosing around, casting doubt on everyone, the leaking might accelerate but will be more devious: Tell a junior to tell friend to tell a reporter, rather than telling the reporter something directly. Email and telephones will be eschewed, or used with great care.
If the communications director wants to control leaking, he should try communicating. He shouldn’t send the press secretary out there looking like a pudding before the custard is poured over it, without her knowing what the president’s policies are or what he meant by his latest enigmatic tweet.
Sheriff, calm the chaos, and start communicating. Then, pardner, the leaks will dry up like them thar desert.