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Donald Trump

Why did story about aide saying McCain was ‘dying anyway’ anger Trump? Because it was leaked

US President says leakers are ‘traitors’ – even as he claims that reports of leaking are exaggerated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 3:03pm

A West Wing aide’s morbid remark about gravely ill Senator John McCain has not yielded widespread White House soul-searching. Instead, it has led to a push to fire those responsible for leaking that story and others that have bedevilled US President Donald Trump’s administration.

Nearly a week after Kelly Sadler dismissed McCain’s opinion on Trump’s CIA nominee during a closed-door meeting by saying “he’s dying anyway,” a torrent of criticism has rained down on the White House. The administration has repeatedly declined to publicly apologise, but the fallout has shaken the West Wing, where the focus remains on who leaked to the media.

Trump is demanding that whoever let the story go public be fired, according to a White House official and an outside Trump adviser. Neither was authorised to speak publicly about private conversations and spoke to Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Leaks have long been a problem for Trump’s White House, but this one has drawn particular scrutiny within the building because of the staying power of the damaging story. Several senior officials, including chief of staff John Kelly and counsellor to the president Kellyanne Conway, have called closed-door meetings to warn junior staffers that a shake-up could be in the offing. The mood has grown increasingly tense.

“It’s an honour and a privilege to work for the president and to be part of his administration. And anybody who betrays that I think is a total and complete coward and they should be fired,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders this week. “We’ve fired people over leaking before.”

Rumours have been circulating over who is responsible for the leak, and chatter about aides looking for the exits has picked up, though previous declarations of crackdowns did not yield shake-ups or end the leaks. Trump has claimed the reports of leaking are exaggerated, but he also suggested in a provocative tweet this week that those who do so are “traitors.” National security adviser John Bolton said that some leakers were “national security risks” and that Kelly was organising an effort to cut them down.

“The president has to have advisers around him who can have open, candid discussions and then not read about him the next day in the newspapers or watch them on television,” Bolton told Fox News Radio.

Conway said Thursday that she knew the identity of some of the leakers but did not say what repercussions might be forthcoming.

She told Fox News that there is “99.8 per cent of the information some of us know in this place that never gets leaked.”

Leaks are nothing new to any White House, but they have been far more pervasive in the Trump administration. In the president’s eyes, the number of unflattering leaks has been evidence that a “deep state” of career officials scattered throughout the government is conspiring against him. But Trump – who has been known to leak himself – has had a love-hate relationship with the practice long before he came to Washington.

“When I worked for Mr. Trump, I worked under the maxim that he liked leaks. I never cleared them ahead of time, but I would tell him later so he’d have deniability,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign official. “Sometimes he loved them, sometimes he screamed about them. But he never told me to stop. He loves the media, loves being talked about, he loves how a leak gets his name in the news.”

Campaign infighting and West Wing rivalries have led to nasty leaks about fellow staffers, while other revelations to the press appeared to be motivated by attempts to influence – or undermine – the president.

Sanders called a heated communications staff meeting last week to discuss the Sadler incident, during which Sadler received the support of several staffers, including Mercedes Schlapp, the White House’s director of strategic communication. Schlapp has been a candidate to become communications director, a post that has been open since the resignation of Hope Hicks, a departure that some White House staffers believe has further eroded morale.

A number of White House aides believe it was a mistake not to publicly apologise to McCain and believe doing so would have cut into the shelf life of a story that, despite Stormy Daniels and the Russia investigation, has managed to carve out a consistent share of cable news coverage. But they privately acknowledge that it would have unleashed the president’s wrath.

Trump has long prided himself on never apologising, believing it shows weakness, and has often displayed enmity for McCain. During the election campaign, he declared that McCain, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years, was not a war hero, and he has publicly and privately blamed the Arizona senator, who is battling cancer, for sinking the Republican health care bill last year.