The age-old White House tradition of floating policy trial balloons through orchestrated leaks has given way to ideas blasted directly from the president on Twitter, driving every issue from strategy on North Korea to NFL rules for players kneeling during the national anthem.
President Trump has replaced the carefully placed story with the Washington press corps with tweets to his more than 40 million followers at a time when less than a third of Americans trust the news media, according to polls.
Whether he is fomenting distrust in the news media or merely reflecting popular opinion is up for debate.
Still, the president’s use of the 140-character social media platform also permeates news coverage. His early-morning tweetstorms regularly dominate the day’s headlines.
White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said the president’s tweets are upsetting the news media and the Washington establishment, but it’s working for him.
“The president connects directly with his millions of followers on social media nearly every day. Of course, the media isn’t happy that he doesn’t have to rely on them to speak to the people as his predecessors did,” she said. “His ability to bring his messages straight to the American people is unquestionably an asset.”
Some of the president’s supporters, however, have even blamed his prolific tweeting for creating distractions from the White House agenda, such as picking a fight last week with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee amid efforts to build support for the Republican tax reform plan.
Mr. Trump’s opponents accuse him of conducting foreign diplomacy on the fly, upsetting U.S. relations with allies and taunting enemies to the brink of war — all of which they say inflicts worry and consternation for everyday Americans.
The Washington press corps also has criticized his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, of failing to keep Mr. Trump’s fingers away from his Twitter account.
Mr. Kelly attempted to dispel the notion that his job included Twitter patrol.
“I was not sent in or was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our president so that he can make the best decisions,” he told reporters at the White House.
Still, an overwhelming majority of voters — 70 percent — want Mr. Trump to stop tweeting, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll.
Americans disagreed with the tweeting even when they agreed with what the president was saying.
For instance, although 52 percent of voters said National Football League players should not take a knee during the national anthem, 58 percent nevertheless said Mr. Trump’s comments on it were inappropriate.
Some Republican Party strategists say the president should instead try the time-tested tactic of leaking news. It often sends political opponents scrambling to figure not only who leaked the information but also what might leak next.
A leaky history
While tweets represent a new tactic to manage and make headlines, the tradition of leaks in American politics dates back to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.
Just before the Revolutionary War, Franklin served as Britain’s postmaster general of the American Colonies. One day, an anonymous packet thick with correspondence from Britain’s top official in Massachusetts arrived at Franklin’s office. The letters were intended for London, but Franklin opened them and found the official urging England to send more troops to crush Boston’s rebellious Colonists.
John Adams soon published the letters in the Boston Gazette, which caused the official to flee Massachusetts and seriously fanned the flames of revolution. Years later, Franklin supposedly said, “A small leak will sink a great ship.”
In more modern times, leaks have forced American society to debate whether such disclosures were the actions of patriotic whistleblowers exposing government wrongdoing or traitors. Either way, emotions always flare.
The Vietnam War featured the explosive leak of a top-secret U.S. government study of the war’s decision-making process known as the “Pentagon Papers.”
The anti-war military analyst who orchestrated the leaks, Daniel Ellsberg, was prosecuted under the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, but the charges were later dismissed.
Upon learning of the leak, President Nixon told Attorney General John Mitchell that he feared Mr. Ellsberg would make a martyr of himself and trigger “the wholesale thievery” of information from across the U.S. government. “We’ve got to get this son of a bitch,” Nixon told Mitchell.
Months later, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began reporting on what would become the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation. Their reporting relied heavily on anonymous leaks.
More recently, deeply troubling leaks of some of America’s most sensitive and top-secret information have rattled the nation’s military and intelligence communities. These leaks were by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — with the material later posted on WikiLeaks.
These leaks evolved into bizarre sagas.
After being found guilty of espionage, Manning went to prison and there underwent a gender transition. Mr. Snowden, also charged with espionage, fled to Russia, where he has temporary asylum. Meanwhile, since 2012 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has lived in exile inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London. He never leaves.
Fighting leaks with tweets
For the Trump administration, leaks have been brutal.
A congressional survey this year found that the White House was confronting leaks at the rate of one a day. That is seven times higher than the same period during the two previous administrations.
The analysis, conducted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, examined leaks from Mr. Trump’s first day in office, Jan. 20, through May 25. It noted that while many of the most damaging disclosures were related to multiple probes of suspected Russian meddling in the presidential election, “The leak frenzy has gone far beyond the Kremlin and has extended to other sensitive information that could harm national security,” said the report.
Leaks have rocked the White House with bad press including accusations that Mr. Trump shared highly classified information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at an Oval Office meeting and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson purportedly calling the president a “moron.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters say the leaks come from his opponents within the government, or “deep state,” in attempts to undermine his presidency.
To battle back, Mr. Trump has turned to his huge Twitter audience to push his side of the story.
According to a tally by The Washington Times, the president has posted more than 1,800 tweets, including retweets and deleted tweets, since taking office.
The tweets have included 102 accusations of “fake news,” a phrase that is appearing at an accelerated rate. More than half of the mentions have appeared in the past four months.
His tweets had 24 mentions of CNN, 17 mentions of the NFL that all occurred in the past month and nine remarks of “Sad!”
Mr. Trump deleted 60 tweets, and in 63 posts referenced “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA.
“It is a battle of leaks versus tweets,” said Republican Party strategist Garrett Ventry, who dealt with a wide spectrum of leaks last year while working behind the scenes on North Carolina’s notorious “bathroom bill.”
Communications experts like Mr. Ventry say Mr. Trump’s ability to speak directly to America is so unique, it’s not a strategy easily copied.
Other find it confounding that the White House can’t figure out how to fight leaks with leaks — the Washington tradition since Franklin’s time.
Across Capitol Hill debate is lively over the tweets emanating from Pennsylvania Avenue.
Democrats generally acknowledge the tweets allow Mr. Trump a historically rare populist connection — which many envy.
Fellow Republicans, including House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, eagerly discuss the possibilities offered up by a president who has fully embraced the era’s most cutting-edge communications technology.
“I don’t normally follow Twitter,” the North Carolinian said. “But every morning I go to the president’s Twitter accounts to see what he is thinking. That’s amazing. It allows him to change the narrative very quickly.”
While Mr. Meadows said presidential tweets cause controversy, he added that “in my district, there are a whole lot of people that love the fact that he keeps tweeting.”
Still others debate the quality of the message.
Academic studies of Twitter show the platform conveys a user’s emotional state much more than traditional email. Mr. Trump’s supporters, like Mr. Meadows and the White House press office, say this “honesty” is what attracts people to his tweets. His detractors say the emotional tone makes him sound unpresidential.
“The presidential tweets are another reason why most heart attacks occur in the morning,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California joked.
The top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence spends a great deal of time investigating Russian meddling and Trump associates.
Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, another California Democrat on the House intelligence committee, also smiled when asked about leaks versus tweets.
“Wasn’t Judas one of the original leakers?” he said.
While admitting Mr. Trump’s morning tweet storms had “gotten inside his head,” Mr. Swalwell questioned how politically effective the strategy would be long-term.
“In this White House, a leak begets a tweet, which begets a leak,” Mr. Swalwell said. “Where will it end?”
⦁ Stephen Dinan and Sally Persons contributed to this report.