BY JONATHAN EASLEY – 05/12/17 06
President Trump is besieged by internal leaks as he tries to weather the fallout from his firing of FBI director James Comey.
Media reports about the run-up to Trump’s decision paint him as isolated and consumed by anger and paranoia, prompting questions from Trump allies about whose interests these government officials had in mind when they spoke to the press.
The behind-the-scenes stories have often undermined the White House’s public reasoning for firing Comey, causing further political trouble for the administration and exacerbating growing divisions between Trump and his law enforcement agencies.
And Trump’s abrupt firing of Comey appears to have stirred opposition from the former FBI director’s loyalists, who are pushing back on the administration’s claims in the press.
The White House felt it was under attack by anonymous leaks coming out of federal agencies in the early days of the administration, leading Trump’s allies to launch public attacks against the “deep state” leakers they described as lifelong bureaucrats and Obama administration holdovers.
The conflict with Comey appears to have launched a new round of leaks from the Justice Department and the FBI. Citing sources close to Comey or lawmakers in touch with the FBI and DOJ, media outlets ran with stories about how Comey was fired because the administration felt the noose tightening on the Russia investigation.
At a moment of crisis, the White House looks surrounded on the outside and divided on the inside.
“It’s total chaos,” said one former transition team official with close ties to the administration.
“It’s image-making on the inside and people trying to protect themselves. There is a deep streak of paranoia among staff. The communications team s— the bed on the Comey firing and now the war with the FBI has them all scared and throwing each other under the bus.
“Thank God I don’t work there. If I did, I’d be dialing up my attorney.”
The behind-the-scenes stories that gripped Washington on Thursday were relayed to the press in the publications and news outlets Trump loves to hate — the New York Times and Washington Post.
In the stories, Trump’s decision to fire Comey was described as the result of “festering anger” at the FBI director for failing to prioritize leaks coming out of the bureau over the investigation into allegations Trump campaign officials colluded with the Russians during the election.
Trump was “stewing” at Comey for weeks, even as some close to him, including chief strategist Stephen Bannon, reportedly advised that the time was not right to fire Comey.
Trump only informed his communications team about the firing an hour beforehand, according to reports, but still raged at his staff for not being more prepared to defend his actions as blowback.
The accounts were almost uniformly unflattering for the president. The stories also elevated some wings of the White House at the expense of others, underscoring the persistent divisions among Trump’s team of rivals and their propensity to air grievances in the press.
The rush of leaks comes as the White House deals with normal course palace intrigue stories.
Trump had just successfully brokered a temporary reprieve from the infighting that played out in the media following an explosive battle between Bannon and senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Even before the Comey firing, though, the White House was once again stung by public infighting, as national security adviser H.R. McMaster became the target of embarrassing stories about how Trump had berated him in front of staff.
Late Wednesday, CNN reported that White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s job was once again on the chopping block.
Trump did nothing to quell those rumors in an interview with Time magazine that ran Thursday.
“The real story is the surveillance but my comms people can’t get it out,” Trump said.
Still, the unusually detailed accounts of inner turmoil frustrated Trump’s allies in the media, like Matt Drudge, who runs the enormously influential conservative aggregation website Drudge Report.
“We never got 1 damaging leak out of Obama White House staff in 8 yrs. Under Trump, they appear hourly. BIG DANGER: Small leaks sink ships!!,” Drudge said in a flurry of tweets.
“Trump advisers leaking to media are now deliberately sabotaging presidency. Major house cleaning needed for survival. Leaks on hour, every hour, will destroy Trump presidency. There’s a Trojan horse plotting within the inner circle!”
As that drama played out, Trump also faced negative stories that appeared to originate with law enforcement officials angered by his handling of the Comey affair.
Those stories directly contradicted the White House’s accounts of events.
The DOJ worked furiously to beat back against a story that Comey had asked for more resources and money for the Russia investigation just before he was fired. Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe dismissed that story Thursday at a public hearing.
But stories about FBI anger over Comey’s firing gained traction, with CNN’s Jake Tapper citing sources close to Comey saying the FBI director was fired because the investigation into potential ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia was “accelerating.”
Comey’s allies also went to the press to shoot down Trump’s claim that Comey had told him three times he was not at the center of the Russia investigation, an argument Trump first made in the letter he used to fire Comey.
The Washington Post later reported that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein considered resigning because the administration had hung Comey’s firing on a memo he put together at the president’s request.
Those leaks and others ignited chatter among Trump’s allies that FBI officials would retaliate against the president by planting negative stories about him in the press.
“Do we now have to worry about deep state officials that gather intelligence are going to go after Americans and the president politically, or the FBI, some that don’t like him might be leaking to hurt this president?,” Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s top boosters in conservative media, asked on his Wednesday night show.
Dov Zakheim, a former Defense official in George W. Bush’s administration, told The Hill those fears might not be far off.
“Should the administration be perceived as trying to influence, stall or undermine the investigation, there will be Justice lawyers and/or FBI agents or both who will see it as their patriotic duty and ethical imperative to leak to the press,” Zakheim said.