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How to Tell Who's Leaking Stories to the Press

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On Wednesday, the New York Times took the extraordinary step of publishing an incendiary op-ed from a “senior administration official” about the national emergency that is Donald Trump. Today the serious discussion about the piece’s content — which, though problematic in many ways, was clear about one thing: Donald Trump is a juvenile lunatic that his own administration recognizes as so alarmingly unfit for office they have at times had to sabotage him — seems to have taken a back seat to a parlor game of whodunnit. The name will eventually out. The piece itself deserves debate.

That said, the importance of a source’s name relevant to the information they provide is a matter of degree. Whether the official should have attached his or her name to it is a thorny debate: It’s cowardly not to own up to these convictions, but also the author would be fired, which the author obviously considered a priori a terrible outcome considering the op-ed is partially about why it’s important to have high-ranking “resistance” officials in the administration. The content and occasion here is more significant than the name, but this isn’t always the case with anonymous sources. (I’ll give you my guess at the end of the piece.)

But it’s often critical to understand exactly where an anonymous source comes from and who it might be. This isn’t because, as Trump believes, we need to punish that person (which SCOTUS ruled a long time ago we can’t). We as readers need that information to discern the real purpose behind a leak or a story.

Sometimes a source wants us to believe something no explicit in the article itself, so we need to have an idea of why an anonymous source would want secret information to be public. That’s what we’re going to look at here. You can apply this to the NYT piece, but it’s a broad skill worth developing. We’ll look at a few cases here, especially Woodward’s book and the constant drip of stories related to the Russia investigation.

Takeaway: You’re often being manipulated.

Who Leaks

Why does the press use anonymous sources? If the news is important enough that it supersedes a source going on record, the exchange is worth it. From the leaker’s side, often the leak will get them in some kind of trouble, be it occupational, social, or legal. Sometimes the leaker will not be authorized to share the information, which would betray protocol or perhaps even an oath.

If you want to try the parlor game of guessing where a major press leak comes from, start by asking two questions:

- Who stands to gain from the leak?
- Why leak now?

(I would add a third element specific to the Russia investigation, which is that it’s 99% likely a leak didn’t come from Mueller’s office. More later.)

One more tip: The reporter always knows who the leaker is. Editors either also know who the source is, and if not, they know why the source is important and why it should be trusted. This is true of the NYT op-ed, which was written by someone obviously closely connected to at least one reporter at the paper.

Sometimes, though, you’ll see information passed to a reporter from a primary source via anonymous middlemen, as we did with Comey’s memos about his conversations with Trump. In those instances the press often tries to make clear where the story came from, but that’s not always the case. For instance, stories often attribute information to “sources familiar with XYZ’s thinking,” such as in this Washington Post piece breaking the news that Mueller’s office sent the White House a request to interview Trump aides. Who is “familiar with Mueller’s thinking”? Well, people in the special counsel’s office, of course, but also the people in the White House who received the request. There’s a long-running strategic move on the Trump team’s part to use the “familiar” ambiguity to leave open the possibility in the mind of the reader that Mueller might be a leaker.

Why Leak?

The phrase “anonymous sources” sets off alarms these days, and it’s not just because Trump has created a mist of hysteria to cover the truth. There’s good reason for this: These days secrecy and lies abound.

For one, we’ve got steady drips from the Russia investigation—one of the biggest stories in recent memory—which is grounded in highly sensitive classified information, so without leaks it would by default be entirely sealed. Additionally, Trump’s White House, in a constant state of feud, leaks like a roof that got hit by an asteroid. On top of this, the president lies with a frequency and intensity that rises to the level of national emergency, and people in his orbit, rather than take on the impossible task of dealing with Trump himself, often prefer to use the media to head off the worst effects of his mental illness. Over the last year and a half, these coinciding factors have contributed to a staggering run of anonymously-sourced stories in the press. The president doesn’t like these stories, which almost always make him look like the sad, maniacal criminal he is, so he tries to discredit them—and, more corrosively, the media institutions that publish them—by casting doubt on the sources.

This is why Trump attacks trusted media institutions as “FAKE NEWS.” He’s trying to get us to dismiss stories from certain outlets before we even read it. When a story relies on an unnamed source, we should be skeptical but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Note that not every story from these outlets is “fake,” just the ones that cast Trump in a negative light. He’s just as quick to praise the same organizations when they publish something favorable.

Trump and the White House are the most common sources. Trump is famous for leaking to the press, often unreliably. For instance, in the 80s he created two personas (John Barron and John Miller) and through them posed as his own publicist to fabricate stories about himself to reporters. Once, speaking to a Forbes reporter as John Barron, Trump lied about his wealth so he could make the Forbes 400.

Trump brought this into the White House. He regularly calls the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, as well as the Post’s Philip Rucker and Axios’ Jonathan Swan, to give them information, often as an anonymous “senior White House official.” Yes: Trump is often one of the anonymous sources he claims don’t exist.

His aides followed his lead. In the early stages of the presidency, the New York Times and the Washington Post each broke several stories that cited dozens of sources. These sources often go on background as “senior administration officials” so they can praise Trump without the ignominy of being held accountable for it. They also leak stories to snipe at their rivals in the White House. Wonderful place to work.

Why would these people leak private information? Sometimes to look or feel important. Sometimes to see what the public or government officials might think about a new policy. Then there’s the “hate leak”: People in Trump’s White House target each other all the time. Here’s a good short piece from Axios, who have some of the best internal White House sourcing, on why people hate leak and how they do it.

Most interestingly today, people might leak stories to stop Trump from doing something stupid. A lot of Mueller stories fit that category: Trump’s team trying to tell him to shut the eff up. Let’s look first at Bob Woodward’s new book, which is entirely drawn on anonymous sources.

But can we trust those sources? Yes and no.

Sources Anonymous

Everything rises from the foundation of credibility. This is true of any rhetoric or reporting. At the most fundamental level, if you can’t trust the source of your information, it’s risky to trust the information. In Woodward’s case, his credibility also adds gas to the explosive claims: This stuff not only strikes you as insane, absurd, deflating, and alarming, it’s also got the weight of truth. When we fully trust a writer or reporter, as almost everyone across the political spectrum does with Woodward, the layer of skepticism that separates us from the text is thin, and as we read we can feel the tremors of reality. Even if it’s based on anonymous sources.

But there are degrees of trust. Let’s compare Bob Woodward’s new Fear to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.

In Fear, Woodward portrays the White House as a madhouse, the daily struggles of a team of people trying to restrain a crazed and stupid child who has the magical power to blow up the world in any number of ways. In broad strokes the narrative mirrors dozens of media reports, the NYT op-ed, but most inescapably Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. However, Woodward’s reputation alone elevates his reporting beyond Wolff’s, which while probably accurate in several ways—the larger narrative contours—was also riddled with factual errors and other slips. Woodward is known for being cautious and meticulous (his book took much longer to press than Wolff’s), and he means it when he says his book, though informed by anonymous sources, draws from first-hand accounts backed by an array of evidence, including primary documents (such as a hand-written note penned by Trump) and taped interviews.

Woodward showed us he can in fact materially support his claims. Today he published the letter that Trump aide Gary Cohn allegedly took off Trump’s desk to prevent him from signing it.

Woodward has receipts. For instance he publishes the draft letter Cohn swiped from Trump’s desk: pic.twitter.com/nvR42wY0Mf— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) September 6, 2018
Notably, Woodward is half of the Woodward and Bernstein team that exposed the Watergate scandal. Their reporting hinged famously—and at the time controversially—on a single, closely guarded anonymous source. History has proved their reporting accurate. Woodward has won two Pulitzers, and he’s never been discredited as a liar or partisan. Indeed, Woodward’s credibility actually seems to confirm a lot we learned in Wolff’s book, which details the same kinds of infighting, terror, and buffoonery.

Though some accounts here might be off the mark in terms of detail (the exact words used), we have no reason to believe he would lead us or himself astray, unless of course we believe he decided to sacrifice his career and remarkable legacy to smear the sitting President with outlandish lies, all because he’s a libtard who has Trump Derangement Syndrome and hates him and wants to see him fail, etc etc.

Along these lines, we also owe major outlets the benefit of the doubt. They’ve stacked up decades of credibility, and though they get stories wrong and make the occasional massive blunder (the NYT buying into the Iraq War comes to mind), they don’t just make things up.

But some people might.

Enter Robert Mueller. But it’s not what you might think.

Case Study: Obstruction of Justice

At the beginning of the administration we had a deluge of stories from anonymous “current and former officials” that over a few months gave us a pretty good idea of the backstory of the FBI’s investigation. Many of these stories later proved true. For instance, we saw an early anonymous leak that the government had a FISA warrant on Carter Page. Turns out they did! These leaks slowed and eventually stopped over time, as intelligence holdovers left the administration and their information fell out of date.

But after Mueller’s appointment we started to see a lot of leaks about the Russia investigation from Trump’s side, especially when it comes to obstruction of justice. In fact, all the major leaks about Mueller’s relationship to Trump specifically have had to do with the obstruction investigation. Why is that? Let’s apply our two questions here and see if we can figure out where these anonymous sources come from and why they’re leaking.

My conclusion first: These all come from Trump’s side. They’re trying desperately to convince him he’s in trouble and shouldn’t sit for an interview with Mueller, which he still wants to do. The obstruction investigation moves faster than the counterintelligence investigation and poses the immediate threat to Trump, which is why these are all about obstruction and not a random assortment of leaks about obstruction, collusion, money laundering, etc. Let’s look at a whole series of them and ask our two questions.

First, we know Donald Trump Jr.’s emails setting up the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting were actually leaked by Jared Kushner’s legal team after they discovered Kushner had left out some pretty important details on his security forms. “Why now?” Well, that discovery came after Mueller had been appointed Special Counsel and was looking into possible obstruction by Trump and those around him. We’ve also seen reporting that Mueller is looking at the misleading statement Trump crafted for his son about that meeting. In fact, we even saw the leak of a letter from Trump’s legal team admitting the President crafted that statement himself.

This Washington Post piece broke the news last September that Mueller’s office had sent the White House a request to interview six Trump aides. The story attributed its sourcing to “people familiar with Mueller’s thinking.” Who’s familiar with Mueller’s thinking? Well, people in the special counsel’s office, of course, but also the people in the White House who received the request. The people interviewed, by the way, are all central to figuring out Trump’s corrupt intent to obstruct. Here’s the same type of ambiguous phrase in a story about Mueller recalling people to discuss more about Trump’s statement on the Trump Tower meeting. Again, obstruction.

(Recall the Trump team’s strategy to create the possibility that Mueller might be the leaker.)

Moving ahead, let’s look at timing. We learned that Trump’s team was looking at whether to have Trump sit for an interview with Mueller. But we also learned around the same time that Mueller had recalled witnesses to speak about the Trump Tower statement (obstruction). Later that month we learned Mueller had interviewed Jeff Sessions, who was central to Trump firing Comey. We’ve learned from Woodward’s book that just three days after that story broke, Trump’s lead attorney at the time, John Dowd, set up a practice interview in order to show Trump why it was a bad idea to sit down with Mueller.

In early April we learned from reporting that Trump’s legal team didn’t want Trump to sit for an interview because he’ll perjure himself in 30 seconds. Interestingly, that detail was included in a story that said Mueller’s team had told Trump’s lawyers that the president wasn’t yet a “target” of a criminal investigation.

Then in late April a leak surfaced of 49 questions Mueller had apparently sent Trump’s team ahead of a possible interview. According to the report, those questions were months old, which coincides with the January leaks and mock interview. They also came from someone outside Trump’s legal team. We knew at the time that John Dowd had left the team some weeks before. We also know that Mueller communicated the questions verbally to Dowd, not in writing, which means Mueller was doing his best to make sure they couldn’t leak from his side.

In June someone leaked a letter from Trump’s legal team to Mueller asserting Trump was above the law when it comes to obstruction of justice and shouldn’t have to sit for an interview with Mueller. That confidential letter, signed by Trump attorneys Dowd and Jay Sekulow, also contained the admission that Trump himself authored Trump Jr’s statement about the Trump Tower meeting.

Recently people close to Don McGahn (and possibly McGahn himself) leaked to the New York Times that McGahn had met for many hours with Mueller’s team to discuss whether Trump committed obstruction of justice. Trump, the story went, was unaware of the extent of McGahn’s interviews. (McGahn got fired two weeks later.)

With that leak in mind, remember that last year former Trump attorney Ty Cobb was overheard talking loudly over lunch with John Dowd in DC about the Russia investigation, specifically that an unnamed White House lawyer was a “spy” for McGahn, and that McGahn had “a couple documents locked in a safe” related to the Russia inquiry. Dumb as Trump’s team might be, it’s inconceivably dumb for them to think they can speak about a sensitive investigation at a DC restaurant and not be picked up by someone. There’s not a small chance Cobb was trying to plant the story.

Why all these leaks? Because Trump has wanted and for some reason still wants to take an interview with Mueller. This is a stupid idea. Trump’s lawyers instead want to make the argument (an argument made in the June leak of the lawyers’ letter and in McGahn’s story in August) that Trump couldn’t have obstructed justice because the President can basically do what he wants. They’re pitching that while also showing Trump just how screwed he is if he tries to absolve himself by addressing the evidence in itself.

You’ll probably soon have the opportunity to test this thesis for yourself. Next Trump-Mueller story, don’t ask who looks good, ask who wins, why, and how it fits the obstruction narrative the defense might be trying to construct.

FAKE NEWS NETWORK

Here’s where it can all go very wrong.

CNN has come under fire from the right wing (again) for a recent report that alleged Michael Cohen knew that Trump had advanced knowledge of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. The report, co-written by Woodward’s old partner Carl Bernstein, cited two anonymous sources, but also said Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, had declined to comment. The whole thing quickly broke down when Davis admitted he had in fact been a source on the story, but hadn’t been clear about it earlier. (CNN stands behind the story.)

Here’s what Davis actually said: “I should have been much clearer that I could not confirm the story.” And, “I think the reporting of the story got mixed up in the course of a criminal investigation. We were not the source of the story.” (Davis was a confirming source for the New York Post and the Washington Post.)

Here the muddy part is what exactly Davis was a source for. Did he give CNN the actual story? Or did he confirm the story to them? It’s possible Davis only said he could confirm the story, but then realized that if he stood by that claim, he could open his client, Cohen, to a perjury charge. Last year Cohen testified to Congress that Trump didn’t have advanced knowledge of the meeting.

This screw-up has been a disaster not just for CNN, Davis, and Cohen, but also for Woodward, who must be furious that his former partner got burned on an anonymously sourced story just as his big book was about to drop.

Back to the source

We can apply all of this to the anonymous source for the op-ed. It’s someone powerful, but probably not, as many have guessed, a household name. It’s likely that well-known officials signed off on the idea, but this person might want to fly under the radar. It would also probably come from someone who, knowing they’d eventually likely be outed, wouldn’t create much turmoil if he or she were fired.

Why leak it? For every attack on Trump, there’s a defense of the administration. You can see the op-ed as a defense of keeping Trump in office in spite of what we learned from the Woodward book. However, the person also must be quite desperate to go public with this, which they know would risk driving Trump crazy. It might be some kind of effort to push Trump to a place where impeachment or the 25th Amendment become urgent.

So that’s my guess: It’s someone important. More worthwhile, what do they want you to believe? Why? And why — after Woodward, after NAFTA, during the Kavanaugh hearings, and likely ahead of some form of interview between Mueller and the president, and possibly on the brink of indictments that begin to close in on Trump and those close to him, and, probably most bizarrely, just weeks ahead of midterm elections — why now?

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