For those not in on the news: somebody leaked transcripts of the President’s phone conversations and people are talking about the implications of the leaks. Folks on the left are largely supportive because they think the transcripts embarrass the President, some folks on the right who don’t even like Trump are, however, concerned. For example.
That tells us nothing about Trump that we didn’t already know from his public statements. All that the leaking of these conversations achieves is to make it harder for future presidents to speak in confidence with their foreign counterparts. We know from his foreign trips and public appearances that Trump disdains diplomacy and manages relations with close allies poorly, so we aren’t learning anything that we needed to know from these transcripts that we couldn’t find out another way. Publishing these transcripts was intended to embarrass Trump, and it has succeeded, but it has done so at a cost to future U.S. diplomacy that isn’t worth whatever brief satisfaction it may give the people responsible for it.
I agree that this is a staggeringly abnormal event. However, I’m decidedly unsure that this comes at the cost indicated, and I’m also unsure that it was intended solely to embarrass Trump.
To explain that further:
Trump is an outlier in U.S. politics that we haven’t seen arguably since Jackson and perhaps ever. As Trumwill pointed out on Twitter the other day, this caused problems even back in the campaign, since “not being like any recent candidate” means judging him by “the norms of the recent candidates” is probably what led to people assuming that “things that Trump said that would have disqualified anybody other than Trump” were also going to lead to Trump’s disqualification.
The flip side to this observation applies to this leak, which exposes a possible error in Mr. Larison’s thought process here.
Since Trump is an outlier, we cannot expect that the reactions to Trump (either by Congress or by the internal mechanisms of the institutional White House/Executive Branch) will follow norms either. The likelihood of any of these norm violations continuing past the current Presidency is thus severely diminished: folks inside the Executive Branch are acting abnormally because Trump is abnormal, and once Trump is no longer President most of these abnormal reactions will decline.
Of course, not all of them will. You push institutional norms far enough, they don’t rebound completely. Some of the things that people will do in response to Trump will indeed become “the new normal”. So I won’t discount this specific concern entirely, but there are other (quite good) reasons to suppose that this particular one will rebound.
One of those good reasons is actually my rejoinder to Larison’s other contention: that this was done solely to embarrass Trump. I don’t believe this is actually the case, for two reasons.
The most important one: because all evidence suggests that “embarrassing Trump” is not an attainable goal in the first place. It’s certainly not a reward that I believe likely enough to motivate someone who is risking quite a lot to leak this conversation (as Daniel points out in his own piece: nothing in these conversations is particularly earth-shattering news). Most people don’t go far out on a limb to do something risky unless they see a concrete reward. And as dysfunctional as this White House has become, the government is a pretty conservative organization when it comes to this sort of thing, and I don’t believe that those institutional norms are close to shattering quite to the point where just anybody is leaking whatever (although given another six months of this, maybe).
Two, because the White House is itself an organism, one that is not just The President, and there are a huge number of people between the President and *everything*.
Viewed in that frame, I don’t think this is a message to Trump. This is a message to everyone else in the White House that is involved in international diplomacy:
“Do everything you can to keep this guy off the phone. Handle everything you can at lower levels.”
That *is* a message that lower-level lifelong government employees would possibly risk their own careers to send, because it’s showing the value of the work that they do.
It’s essentially a plea, from the person leaking this information:
“We can do so, so much better than this guy. Folks in his inner circle? Keep him busy. Keep him off the phone. Help me craft things on the side where he can’t see them and muck them up, and then you can take them to his desk to sign, where he can get a photo op and be happy, and you can get some credit, and I can get the actual work of this government done.”