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Trump White House Takes Steps To Plug Leaks


When talking on the record, White House officials have been denouncing news leaks of information they don't like. Some White House officials also speak anonymously to leak their side of the story. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us this morning from our studios in New York. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how has Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, tried to stop news leaks?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's helped, of course, that from the president on down officials at the White House have been denouncing leaks and saying they must stop, often in capital letters in tweets. Most recently, Sean Spicer was perturbed that the hiring of a communications official for the White House was leaked in the pages. He called in his own staff. He said this has to stop, that anyone who does such things would be punished.

And then he demanded that they all essentially put their mobile phones on the table so - both their work phones and their personal phones so he could scroll through call logs, text, emails, figure out who had been talking to the press. And we know this, of course, because the details were deliciously splashed in the pages and the website of Politico thanks to a leak.

INSKEEP: Of course. And Politico just very gently dropped that in the story, that this was, in fact, a news leak. And yet at the same time that they're going after leaks, Sean Spicer, same guy, tried to get officials to speak anonymously about the investigation of the administration in Russia. What's that about?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it was about an FBI investigation. And according to White House officials - take what you want from this - FBI officials had said, you know, there really isn't much there. We're not finding much. They had said, why didn't you tell the public that, knock down reports in CNN and The New York Times, you know, dispel the belief in the public that this is serious? Couldn't get the FBI officials to do it, so they turned.

They turned, as it turns out, to the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, and the two Republican chairmen of the congressional committees that oversee and in some cases investigate intelligence matters. They got those three officials to talk to reporters in certain cases to try to knock down the stories particularly in The New York Times. And they were very narrowly construed. Spicer allowed them to talk to only answer a direct question, not really take up follow-ups and just try to push the administration line.

INSKEEP: Well, this reminds me of something, David Folkenflik. Many administrations denounce anonymous sources and leakers. The Obama administration certainly did and even prosecuted people. And yet an awful lot of anonymously sourced stories tend to be in the interest of officials. They spend time with reporters. They meet with them privately. They explain what's really going on. This can be horrible spin. It can also be actually very helpful to the public. In any case, it brings reporters onto the inside. Does this administration really oppose that at all?

FOLKENFLIK: No. There are two kinds of leaks. One are things that you denounce as leaks because they're information you didn't want to get out. And the other are other words that you get out subtly through the press with - anonymously or through unnamed sources that are useful conduits and channels of information, providing what you might think is information, other people might think is spin. And of course, both are leaks. Some of them are damaging to an administration's agenda and some of them are supportive. Of course, when you have - you're seeking control of information, a lot more leaks tend to spring up.

INSKEEP: David, is this to some extent just a show? The attack on the media is something the administration can put out on days when it doesn't have another message?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that's an element of it, to be sure. I also think it's an effort to undercut very much the ability of the press to have standing and credibility by saying these are just leaks, these are just made up. I mean, you've seen them blurring, right? You've seen folks at the White House from the president on down say at once this stuff is fake news and also that these are very damaging leaks. They can't be both.

But what you're seeing from the White House, I think, is an effort to control alternative sources of information, and in the instances it can't control them to try to undercut credibility for what they're offering. You've seen that with the judiciary. You're seeing it a lot with the press.

INSKEEP: Have we ever had a president who was himself so experienced at speaking with reporters, doing it personally, speaking anonymously at times and even, according to some reports which the president has denied, posing as his own PR man? Have we ever had a president who was quite so experienced at speaking anonymously with the press?

FOLKENFLIK: No. I mean, in a sense, you know, President Trump is perhaps the candidate and now the president who's a little bit most like the central figure in "The Truman Show." I mean, it seems as though you cannot think of a time when Donald Trump, from his earliest days in real estate on, hasn't been a creature of the press, in the press and able particularly to manipulate it and to dictate its rhythms. He's now finding it's a little tougher to do on the national stage, but he's sure giving it a shot.

INSKEEP: David, thanks as always.


INSKEEP: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.