The Trump White House provided reporters with a gusher of leaks. With Biden, everything’s changed.
By Paul Farhi,
Demetrius Freeman The Washington Post
After two and a half months of Joe Biden’s presidency, something is missing from the news coverage of his administration: leaks.
Juicy details about the president’s behind-the-scenes conduct and decision-making? No one seems able to dig up anything interesting.
Early forecasts of major policy proposals on the horizon, a.k.a. the grand tradition of the Washington trial balloon? A story we’re not getting to read these days.
Insider accounts of West Wing rivalries, analyses of who wields influence with the president, detailed lists of Oval Office visitors? No such thing anymore.
Reporters drank lustily from the fire hose of leaks that emanated from the West Wing during the past four years. President Donald Trump’s inexperience and chaotic management style begot “West Side Story”-level infighting among subordinates, which translated into the drip-drip-drip of insider accounts, sometimes on a near-daily basis. The leaks were pooled into detailed narratives, featuring multiple sources. Despite periodic vows of a crackdown, the leaks ran nearly unplugged for four years, including during Trump’s final, desperate days in office.
Since then, the pipeline has gone dry.
When the $1.9 trillion stimulus package was taking shape in February, readers and viewers had few glimpses into how Biden and his advisers molded it. There were no leaks describing inside-the-room scenes of aides hashing out the president’s priorities.
A similar opacity has attended another monumental spending proposal, the $2 trillion-plus infrastructure-and-job-creation bill under consideration in Congress. How exactly did some of its proposed features, such as big expenditures on broadband connections, clean energy and housing for seniors, come about?
“No question, the Trump White House leaked a lot, especially in the early days when the tribal rivalries were fiercest,” said New York Times reporter Peter Baker. “The Biden people have come in more disciplined so far, and we haven’t had as much insight into the behind-the-scenes fights and debates inside the White House.”
That is not to say that fights and debates aren’t happening within the White House, he added. “It may just take us a little longer to learn more about them.”
Another White House reporter called Biden’s White House “effectively a leakproof operation.”
Unlike Trump, who came into office with few long-serving aides, Biden is surrounded by a close circle of people who have worked with him, and with one another, for years. Senior White House adviser Anita Dunn is a holdover from the administration of Barack Obama. Chief of staff Ron Klain was one of Biden’s chiefs of staff during his vice presidency, as was current senior counselor Steve Ricchetti. Another senior adviser, Mike Donilon, has worked with Biden since 1981.
The senior staff’s experience and evident familiarity with one another has created a different operating environment, White House reporters say, with fewer apparent power struggles. At least none that have been leaked.
“There’s no real competing for his attention” among aides, said a veteran White House correspondent. “I think he listens to new people, but at the end of the day, he’s around the same familiar faces. So, [there’s] less jockeying.” (The reporter spoke on the condition of anonymity because her employer, much like the White House, doesn’t permit unauthorized comments to reporters.)
The Biden camp’s close-to-the vest strategy in the White House is a continuation of its approach during the late stages of his campaign, during which Biden didn’t appear in public for weeks at a time. The message discipline seems part of a conscious strategy to maintain a lower profile and project an image of calm as Biden and his team grapple with the pandemic and its economic fallout. The low-visibility approach was evident in Biden’s decision to wait longer than any other new president of the past century to give his first news conference.
Then again, any administration would seem leakproof compared with the Trump White House. Trump himself was the source of some of his own leaks as president, reporters say — a habit he picked up many years earlier as a New York real estate developer dropping self-serving tips to reporters under the pseudonym John Barron.
The leaking got so bad — or good, at least from a press perspective — that it spawned its own cottage industry. Author Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” an early best-selling tell-all about Trumpian chaos and dysfunction, was effectively a book-length leak. It contributed to the downfall of Wolff’s primary source, White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
This was followed by a “senior White House official,” writing under the name Anonymous, who turned his leaks into a sensational New York Times op-ed in 2018 and then a best-selling book (Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff, later came forward as the writer).
“In my time covering presidents, each president is more buttoned up” until Trump arrived, said Carol Leonnig, a Washington Post reporter who co-authored another best-selling Trump book, “A Very Stable Genius.” “I thought George W. Bush had great message control until Obama came into office. But Trump was unusual.”
Leonnig, who is writing a new book about Trump’s last year in office with colleague Philip Rucker, points out that leaks aren’t just about West Wing soap operas. They serve an important role in the political journalism ecosystem, providing details on how a policy has evolved, whose interests it may favor, and whether rules, norms or laws have been broken in the process. Try to imagine the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, she said, without the leaks provided by Mark Felt, the FBI official who was the anonymous source nicknamed “Deep Throat.”
Baker, of the New York Times, notes that as much as leaks annoy presidents and their staffs, they provide a window into decision-making that affects the public. “In a democratic society, we should hope for more transparency and less secrecy,” he said.
As the shades are drawn tighter in Biden’s White House, it’s incumbent upon journalists to find ways to peek behind them, said Jonathan Karl, ABC News’s chief Washington correspondent and the author of still another Trump-era bestseller, “Front Row at the Trump Show.” “Reporters need to work hard to give readers and viewers a sense of what is really going on in the White House,” he said.
Eventually, Biden’s minions will start leaking, too, since all White Houses do, said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. “These things never last,” said Hess, who wrote a book on Washington leaks and leakers, “The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices,” in 1984.
What would inspire a White House staffer to leak? “On one level, people have different ideas. On another, someone may not like someone very much. That puts cracks in the wall,” Hess said. And reporters will also be able to look to lobbyists, congressional power players, agency staffers.
“Leaks come from people who know things and love to talk about it,” said Hess. “It’s politics, it’s Washington, but it’s also just human nature.”