WASHINGTON ― The Washington Post’s Thursday morning publication of transcripts documenting calls between President Donald Trump and two foreign leaders instantly made major news by revealing Trump’s private comments. But it also sparked a debate about whether the Post’s sources should have leaked the transcripts in the first place.
“Yes, these transcripts are newsworthy. I’d agree there’s some public interest in seeing how POTUS speaks to foreign leaders,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and current Brookings Institution analyst, wrote on Twitter. “That said, these leaks come at cost in several ways.”
She cited foreign leaders’ perception of the integrity of the White House, the way the leak could undermine newly appointed White House chief of staff John Kelly and how it might encourage the leak-obsessed president to avoid including note takers during his conversations ― something he’s already done, notably during a July chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Security sources in Australia ― one of the countries involved in the leak ― are already worried, according to journalist Jamie Tarabay.
Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman under President Barack Obama, called the leak “absurd.” A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, David Frum, wrote in The Atlantic that the action was “unprecedented, shocking, and dangerous.”
For Frum, the long-term consequences of leaking the calls tips the scale against the immediate public interest, making the violation unjustifiable.
“Contempt for Trump’s misconduct inspires counter-misconduct,” he wrote. “Donald Trump has launched the executive branch into a cycle of self-destruction for which he bears ultimate blame — but whose ultimate cost will be borne by his successors and the American nation.”
But the striking content of the transcripts led other commentators to challenge those criticisms.
“I think this is one of those reasonable-people-can-disagree moments,” Daniel Drezner, a Tufts University international politics professor and Washington Post contributor, told HuffPost.
To him, the question is whether government officials observing potentially concerning behavior ― in this case Trump’s apparent lies, belligerence and confusion in the calls ― should feel compelled to reveal that, even if it means leaking.
“You can argue that the violation of norms was the content of the conversations,” Drezner said, adding that this is a consistent problem for experienced U.S. government bureaucrats in the Trump administration.
It’s unclear for now whether the leakers were national security professionals worried about the president’s comments in the calls. Drezner and others acknowledged that the leak could also be politically motivated and meant to make new hires like Kelly look bad, in which case the source might not have even considered the tough dilemma Drezner described.
The broader conversation about leaks, which have become central to coverage of the Trump presidency, can be skewed because vastly different kinds of releases all get considered together, Drezner said.
While the transcripts themselves weren’t declassified, the Post story does not appear to reveal sensitive national security matters. And the president himself has begun shifting the bounds on what the U.S. should consider secret, recently appearing to unilaterally declassify a CIA operation on Twitter and reportedly sharing U.S. intelligence with Russian officials.
In this instance, Drezner and others noted, the leak reveals not sensitive material but the fact that the president’s team lied when it denied that there was tension in his call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
As the Trump era continues, it seems that the debate highlighted by the Post’s disclosures will continue ― the president hasn’t showed signs of moderating his behavior in office, as some suggested he might, and government officials privy to his private actions may continue to feel that Trump is violating the standards and principles they are sworn to protect.