Eric Trump really isn’t a fan of his father’s tax returns being leaked to David Cay Johnston and revealed on Rachel Maddow’s show.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) March 19, 2017
The leak obviously turned out to be nothing at all, and put a lot of egg on Maddow’s face. But the idea the leaking of President Donald Trump’s tax returns is “third world” is kind of ridiculous. Trump is president, so it means more people in government probably have access to his returns than before. We also don’t know who gave Johnston Trump’s return, but given his writing on tax policy, it could have been someone in Trump’s circle or in the IRS (the conspiracy theorist in me thinks it could have been one of Trump’s folks who leaked it because it mostly puts the tax return issue to bed). The fact Trump is considering legal action against MSNBC and Johnston is rather reprehensible because they are protected by the First Amendment. It’s a tough pill for Trump supporters to swallow, but very true. The same Constitution which protects Hot Air also protects MSNBC.
Eric Trump is right about something: someone with a political agenda released the tax returns. But this isn’t surprising for anyone who has dealt with leaks of one kind or another. Reason’s Jesse Walker wrote last month how leakers aren’t always people who are on some crusade to keep government pure and open, but are still a good thing.
The first time anyone ever leaked a story to me, way back in the 1990s, he declared himself a whistleblower. That was one of the first words out of his mouth: “whistleblower.” And the word fit. He was phoning to tell me about something his boss had done that was at least arguably improper.
He didn’t mention it, but it didn’t take much digging to discern that my anonymous source had a hidden motive too. He had been passed over for a promotion, and he was pissed about it.
One lesson here is that leakers don’t always have noble motives. A second is that you can have shady motives and still reveal a legitimate story. Deep Throat didn’t leak information about the Watergate investigation to Bob Woodward because Richard Nixon’s crimes offended him. He was a high-ranking FBI guy with his own history of trampling the Constitution, and his leaks were part of a complex game of bureaucratic warfare. Nonetheless, they exposed significant facts.
Don’t think people within government leak information just to let people know what someone in government is doing, or to expose bad behavior. Tyler Cowen at Bloomberg View writes how sometimes the Administration releases so-called “classified information” to put pressure on foreign governments or to make facts known without having to hold a news conference.
Sometimes governments trade leaked information to reporters, to curry favor. Other times leaks are used to hurt rivals within the public sphere, or a leak can serve as a trial balloon to test the popularity of an idea. Leaks also may help a president’s Cabinet members build up their own internal empires, which can boost a president’s agenda.
Or the American government may want to inform its people about, say, drone operations in Yemen, but without having to answer questions about the details. In this regard, leaks may substitute for more direct congressional oversight, to the benefit of the executive.
In other words, leaks are part of how the government manages the press and maintains its own popularity. A leak can get a story onto the front page, or if the first leak did not create the right impression, the information flow can be massaged by yet another leak.
Leaks are also a way of threatening other governments, yet without the president putting all of his credibility on the line. For instance, it can be leaked that the national security establishment would be especially unhappy with a further expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements. That sends a message, yet without committing the American government to any particular response if the settlements proceed. Or leaks can signal to foreign terrorists or governments that we know what they are up to.
Leaks are going to happen and Trump, his allies, and his family are going to have to accept it whether they like it or not. This is why Trump’s declaration of a war on leaks is rather disturbing, whilst also another example of him following in former President Barack Obama’s footsteps. Kirsten Powers famously said on Fox News the only way people learned about the Obama Administration was when information was leaked. A similar thing is happening during the Trump Administration, and will continue in the next administration. Given the leviathan of government, and how huge some corporations have gotten, it’s doubtful any one president will be able to crack down on leaks unless he or she fires everyone and puts his own people in power (which is harder said than done, despite what Trump supporters might want) or just starts cutting government to make it smaller and smaller. Even then, it depends on which agencies remain and what their powers are. Wikileaks would probably still exist, even if federal bureaucracy was cut, and leaking out different details on what the government does to spy on its citizens.
Getting back to Trump’s tax returns…let’s just be honest. If you really want to stop tax returns from being leaked, just end the income tax and shut down the IRS. I’d be in favor of that, and I’m sure plenty of other people would too.