Axios: White House chief of staff leading good old-fashioned mole hunt

Isn’t the first rule of Mole Hunt Club that you don’t talk about mole hunts? Under normal circumstances, perhaps, but the Donald Trump White House isn’t “normal” in more than one way. Chief of staff Mark Meadows has made it clear that plugging leaks to media is Job One, and he’s made his strategy for closing the spigots unusually plain, Axios’ Jonathan Swan reports:

President Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has told several White House staffers he’s fed specific nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they pass them on to reporters — a trap that would confirm his suspicions. “Meadows told me he was doing that,” said one former White House official. “I don’t know if it ever worked.”

Why it matters: This hunt for leakers has put some White House staffers on edge, with multiple officials telling Axios that Meadows has been unusually vocal about his tactics. So far, he’s caught only one person, for a minor leak. …

Meadows, Trump’s fourth chief of staff in three and a half years, faces the same problem all of his predecessors face: In the leakiest White House in modern history, how does one possibly satisfy a president who has privately said he feels like he’s surrounded by snakes?

This is a typical mole-hunt or leaker-hunt tactic, but it has its own problems. First, the dissemination of false information makes it tough to get work accomplished. The staff usually works off of the best information they have to achieve their objectives. The kind of bait that Meadows has to spread around will interfere with that, which means the team becomes less efficient and more prone to error.

Second, the “White House” encompasses a large number of individuals, not all necessarily contained to the West Wing. It’s not easy to keep track of all the bait, and there’s no guarantee that the leaker was the primary recipient of it. All of these people have to share information with each other to get their jobs done, just like any organization requires. In fact, a smart leaker would take care not to give something away to which only he or she had access, at least not one hoping to hang onto a job. The next step, even if the bait works, is to start interrogating people to trace out where that information went, and hoping that it’s narrow enough to pinpoint the leaker. That leads to a massive hit on morale and an even greater reduction in efficiency and success.

That’s why the first rule of Mole Hunt Club is not to talk about Mole Hunt Club. So why is Meadows being “unusually vocal” about it? Two reasons come to mind. Meadows wants to disincentivize leaking internally, of course. However, he might also want to reduce or eliminate any credibility leakers have with their contacts in the media. After all, reporters don’t want to get caught with their pants down passing along false information, especially if it’s easily disproven.

Although, the widespread use of disinformation bait does certainly open up the possibilities for creating “fake news” arguments for the White House. Hmmmm.

Speaking of morale, the dangers from mole hunts spare no one, not even the top hunter:

Three-and-a-half months in, he has told people he is struggling with the chief’s job and that if Trump wins re-election, he’ll only stay in the role for an additional year, if that long.

While he has brought in a handful of staffers loyal to him in the legislative affairs, communications and press offices, Meadows has yet to establish a strong power base in a White House known for backbiting — and he has not been able to execute on many conservative priorities, according to interviews with a dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. And while Baker has boasted of masterminding the 1984 drubbing of Walter Mondale “right out of the chief of staff’s office,” Meadows’ boss is currently down nearly 10 points in national polls and looking increasingly doomed in November.

“It should not surprise anyone that Meadows is having an almost impossible time because it is mission impossible being Trump’s chief of staff,” said Chris Whipple, an author who has written extensively about White House chiefs of staff and whose upcoming book is The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future.

“Look at what has happened on Meadows’ watch: the walk to Lafayette Square, the complete mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, the defense of the Confederate flag and the botched handling of the intelligence on the Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers. We could go on and on. It has been one of the worst stretches of the Trump presidency,” Whipple added. “He took the job, so he owns it. That was his first big mistake.”

Maybe the mole hunt is Meadows’ attempt to score a win that Trump will appreciate. If so, it won’t come cost free.