Sean Spicer targets own staff in leak crackdown – Politico
Press secretary Sean Spicer is cracking down on leaks coming out of the West Wing, with increased security measures that include random phone checks of White House staffers, overseen by White House attorneys.
The push to snuff out leaks to the press comes after a week in which President Donald Trump strongly criticized the media for using unnamed sources in stories and expressed growing frustration with the unauthorized sharing of information by individuals in his administration.
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Last week, after Spicer became aware that information had leaked out of a planning meeting with about a dozen of his communications staffers, he reconvened the group in his office to express his frustration over the number of private conversations and meetings that were showing up in unflattering news stories, according to sources in the room.
Upon entering Spicer’s office for what one person briefed on the gathering described as “an emergency meeting,” staffers were told to dump their phones on a table for a “phone check,” to prove they had nothing to hide.
Spicer, who consulted with White House counsel Don McGahn before calling the meeting, was accompanied by White House lawyers in the room, according to multiple sources.
There, he explicitly warned staffers that using texting apps like Confide — an encrypted and screenshot-protected messaging app that automatically deletes texts after they are sent — and Signal, another encrypted messaging system, was a violation of the Presidential Records Act, according to multiple sources in the room.
The phone checks included whatever electronics staffers were carrying when they were summoned to the unexpected follow-up meeting, including government-issued and personal cellphones.
Spicer also warned the group of more problems if news of the phone checks and the meeting about leaks was leaked to the media. It’s not the first time that warnings about leaks have promptly leaked. The State Department’s legal office issued a four-page memo warning of the dangers of leaks, and that memo was immediately posted by The Washington Post.
But with mounting tension inside the West Wing over stories portraying an administration lurching between crises and simmering in dysfunction, aides are increasingly frustrated by the pressure-cooker environment and worried about their futures there.
Within the communications office, the mood has grown tense. During a recent staff meeting, Spicer harshly criticized some of the work deputy communications director Jessica Ditto had done, causing her to cry, according to two people familiar with the incident. “The only time Jessica recalls almost getting emotional is when we had to relay the information on the death of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said, referring to the Navy SEAL killed recently in action in Yemen.
Ditto also denied the accounts. “This is 100 percent not true,” she said Sunday after the incident was reported. “Sean and I have a great working relationship.”
Spicer declined to comment about the leak crackdown.
The campaign to sniff out a series of damaging leaks, which Spicer is convinced originated from his communications department, has led to a tense environment in the West Wing. During meetings, the press secretary has repeatedly berated his aides, launching expletive-filled tirades in which he’s accused them of disclosing sensitive information to reporters and saying that they’ve disappointed him.
As word of the hunt has ripped through the office, talk has turned to the question of whether firings are to come.
Spicer was particularly incensed by the leaks last week that Michael Dubke had been tapped as the new White House communications director — a hire that became public before it was officially announced.
“In general,” said one senior administration official, “there is a lot of insecurity.”
While other parts of the White House appear to be stabilizing, the press shop is often a center of frustration about how things are going — and not just from Spicer, who fumes to aides about stories he doesn’t like.
For Trump, a cable TV addict who has long obsessively tracked news coverage about himself, the ongoing turmoil in the White House communications wing threatens to derail the media narrative that will help to define the opening days of his presidency. His decision to hold a free-flowing news conference last week, two senior officials said, stemmed from a recognition that he was no longer breaking through in a news cycle that had turned against him.
“He reached a breaking point where he wanted to do it himself,” said one senior White House aide.
It has not been lost on senior White House officials that Spicer is overseeing an overwhelmed press office, where work often begins just after 6 a.m. and ends close to midnight.
To help streamline the office, the administration has tapped Dubke, a veteran under-the-radar Republican operative known for his organizational skills. Yet the move has infuriated Trump campaign aides, who argue that someone who’d been a vocal Trump supporter — which the establishment-minded Dubke hadn’t been — should have gotten the job.
“People are on fire about it,” one campaign veteran said of the Dubke hire.
Multiple former campaign aides said they were under the impression that RNC veterans pushed through Dubke, who is close with Republican strategist Karl Rove, with relatively little consultation with others in Trump world. (Several other people interviewed for the post, including Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence, and Scott Jennings, a former political aide in the George W. Bush White House.)
To some degree, the challenge Spicer and other press aides face is unique — they are working for a president who takes an unusually intense interest in the work his communications office does. Trump is known to watch Spicer’s daily press briefings while eating lunch in the White House dining room. While the president was critical of his press secretary in the administration’s first month — especially after he was parodied on “Saturday Night Live” — he more recently has offered the press secretary his private assurances that his job is safe.
The push to crack down on leaks follows a week in which the president ratcheted up his criticism of the press and condemned the free flow of information from parts of his administration. On Friday, Trump called the media the “enemy of the American people” during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in which he railed against journalists for using anonymous sources.
“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake,” Trump said. “A few days ago, I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people,’ and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”
Later on Friday, Spicer blocked certain media, including CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed and POLITICO, from attending an off-camera press briefing in his office. Time and The Associated Press boycotted the briefing out of solidarity.
On Saturday, Trump said he would not attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington.