For a president so given to fantasy and fond of alternative facts, Donald Trump has been right about one thing all along: His government is a shockingly leaky vessel.
Thank heaven for that.
It’s not judges or senators who will save us from the worst of Trump, which is most of Trump. His undoing will come from within. Be as cynical as you want about Washington — I certainly indulge myself — but there remain insiders with consciences, and some of them actually work for the president. They’re willing to work against him if circumstances warrant it. Circumstances have been warranting it, and here we are.
What we’re witnessing is astonishing. I don’t mean Trump’s actions — including the infuriating reports that he divulged highly classified information to Russian visitors and asked James Comey to lay off Michael Flynn — though those do qualify. I mean how reliably these details reached journalists. I mean how reliably Trump’s embarrassing or outrageous behavior always reaches journalists, as government officials use the very media that he demonizes to expose his recklessness, ridicule his cluelessness, warn Americans about his intentions and head him off at the pass.
This much leaking this soon in an administration explodes the norms of the White House every bit as much as Trump’s own conduct does, and it’s an indication more powerful than just about any other of what kind of president we have. He is so unprepared, shows such bad judgment and has such an erratic temper that he’s not trusted by people who are paid to bolster him and who get the most intimate, unvarnished look at him. Some of them have decided that discretion isn’t always the keeping of secrets, not if it protects bad actors. They’re right. And they give me hope.
In one of those incredibly revealing confluences of news developments, the story about Trump’s dangerously loose lips with the Russians came out on the same day that the hosts of “Morning Joe” spoke of Kellyanne Conway’s privately admitted disgust for Trump, at least back during the campaign.
It’s getting worse and worse. Last week in particular demonstrated that. He gives his lieutenants lies to peddle, creates avoidable messes and then rails if underlings don’t grab their mops and clean up with sufficient cheer and success. Aides will suck up a whole lot for proximity to power, and partisans will make enormous compromises in the name of the team. But at the end of the day, they’re human. They have limits, dignity and the mobile phone numbers of dozens of reporters.
Trump should understand that. He’s always telling us how smart he is but showing us the opposite, and as our parents always warned us, actions speak louder than words.
Foolish: to demand such fierce loyalty from the people around you but give precious little in return. It loosens their lips.
Foolish: to continue to treat the Russians with a double scoop of courtesy — here, guys, take a gander at this Islamic State intelligence! — amid a continuing investigation into, and intensifying suspicions about, your exact degree of coziness with Moscow.
If he was wagering that his words to the Russians would never leave the room, well, that’s proof of yet more foolishness. With Trump, everything has been leaving the room, by some route or another. If he hasn’t learned that yet, he’s uneducable.
There are people around Trump who see him for who and what he is. There are people who work in his administration not because they have high hopes for him but because they have modest hopes that they can bend things in a better direction or mitigate damage. None of them were setting themselves up to be moles. But some are playing that part.
And so we knew, even before Trump sat down with NBC’s Lester Holt, that the White House was spinning a fairy tale about why the president fired Comey. We knew about possible policy changes regarding climate change and LGBT rights before Trump was ready to publicize them, because aides checked and balanced him with leaks to the media.
We discovered this week that an administration official had presented to Trump, and that he believed, a fake cover of a Time magazine from the 1970s that warned of an impending ice age. And we were briefed on his imprudent conversation with the Russians.
All of this came from within, and much of it reflects a concern for country — and for truth — that’s greater than any concern for Trump. Foolish: the failure to account for some aides’ decency and patriotism.
“Don’t be tattletales” was another caution from our parents, but it was imperfect — or at least incomplete. Sometimes tattling is all that keeps danger at bay. Swampy as Washington can be, it still harbors creatures who understand that.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.