Trump’s West Wing Is Making East Germany Look Good

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There is no doubt that the geyser of leaks emanating from Donald Trump’s White House—whatever the motivation behind it—has made the daily business of politics almost impossible. Policy initiatives have been cratered before they launched; West Wing careers have been killed; venerated journalistic institutions have been reduced to Us Weekly on the Potomac. And yet every attempt to plug the spigot has been futile. Just one month after Trump took office, his then press secretary, Sean Spicer, demanded that his staffers turn over their phones to White House lawyers for a “phone check.” (The incident leaked to the press.) A year later, Chief of Staff John Kelly resorted to more drastic measures, banning the use of personal cell phones in the West Wing. (The incident leaked to the press.) Months later—despite numerous firings, public shamings, and mounting paranoia over the Robert Mueller investigation—the situation remains much the same, leaving some to wonder if the problem isn’t the staffers, but the culture, or even the boss himself. “Bad managers almost always breed an unhappy workplace, which ultimately results in pervasive leaking,” a former White House official told Axios. “And there has been plenty of all those things inside this White House. Some people use leaking to settle personal scores, or even worse to attack the president, but for me it was always to make a point about something that I felt was being unjustly ignored by others.”

The details of that unhappy workplace recall East Germany in the 70s. On Tuesday, CNN reported exactly how the administration is trying (and failing) to contain the leaks, drawing on interviews with some very leaky White House officials. Personal phones are reportedly banned from the premises, forcing staffers to either leave them in their cars or in special lockers outside the West Wing (where, apparently, they huddle at all hours attempting to catch up on personal messages and calls). Apple Watches are not allowed. And per CNN, there’s even a special squad that occasionally conducts office sweeps:

Sweeps are carried out to track down personal devices that have made it past the lobby and into the building. According to sources who are familiar with the sweeps, men dressed in suits and carrying large handheld devices have been seen roaming the halls of the West Wing, moving from room to room, scouring the place for devices that aren’t government-issued. If one is detected, one of the men will ask those in the room if someone forgot to put their phone away . . .

The devices are largely accurate, sources say, and can even determine what type of device is in the room. When the ban was first implemented several months ago, a group of lawmakers was waiting for the president in the West Wing while a sweep was being carried out. The device picked up a Samsung Galaxy, which was in the pocket of one of the visiting lawmakers, according to a source familiar with the situation.

So far, however, not even Trump’s Men in Black-style specialists have had much of an impact. In March, a somewhat unprecedented leak of the president’s official briefing materials prompted yet another news cycle about his cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin. (Trump was reportedly “infuriated” by the leak, and quizzed outside allies on which staffer they thought was responsible.) In the past few months alone, chatty White House sources have dished up damning information on the Rob Porter debacle, Hope Hicks’s departure, the Russia legal defense squad’s game of backstabbing musical chairs, the firings of several Cabinet-level officials, and the increasing sense of doom surrounding Kelly’s own tenure as chief of staff.

As recently as last week, a private comment by White House staffer Kelly Sadler—that John McCain’s vote didn’t count for much, considering he’s “dying anyway”—made its way into the news cycle, infuriating press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who reportedly scolded a room full of press aides for leaking the remark. “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting,” she said, per a source speaking to Axios. (And, of course, she was right.)

West Wing spy hunters might have better luck if they could only silence the aggrieved serial leaker at the top. Instead, the White House strategy has been to close ranks and rail against the media for its reliance on the unfaithful. “I think it is disgusting and some of the most shameful behavior that you could ever engage in,” Sanders said on Fox & Friends Wednesday, referring not to the comment about McCain, but the fact that it got out. “It’s an honor to work for the president and to be part of his administration. Anybody who betrays that . . . is a total and complete coward and they should be fired.” The real problem, as Matt Schlapp—the husband of White House Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp—told CNN on Monday, is “people who have an animus against [Sadler], and that’s the problem in this White House.” President Trump himself was more gnomic in his comments on Twitter. The “so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible,” he explained. “With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”



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