Here’s some PR counsel you can take to the bank: There is no such thing as an “off-the-record” conversation with a reporter. In fact, often the best way to get a story out is to incessantly repeat the information you are providing is hush-hush and on the QT. Here’s how the game is played. I’ll let you decide on the ethics of it all.
Imagine I work in the White House and confidentially confide to a reporter over drinks that Donald Trump wears pink slippers. The reporter most likely will share the information with their editor and possibly some colleagues. They don’t want to risk getting scooped, so they’ll snoop around to get a second source to confirm my tip and then argue they didn’t get it from me. One strategy is to bluff another White House source saying, “I’m doing a story that Donald Trump wears pink slippers.”
“How on earth did you find that out?”
Madeleine Westerhout learned the hard way that “loose lips sink ships,” especially when you are drinking and having an “off-the-record” dinner with about a half dozen reporters, including one from a newspaper hoping to topple its second president. Trump’s former administrative gatekeeper naively thought that anything she did or shared wouldn’t be repeated, but thanks to Politico and the New York Times, quite a bit is known about Westerhout’s fateful soiree except what she ordered for dinner.
The gathering was held in the restaurant of the Embassy Suites near Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, NJ, where Trump was vacationing. Among those in attendance were the Washington Post’s Phil Rucker, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs, Reuters’ Steve Holland, the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Restuccia, and deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley.
In the midst of the meal, Gidley left for about 45 minutes to do an interview with Fox News. While he was gone, Westerhout volunteered that she had a better relationship with Trump than his daughters Ivanka and Tiffany and that Trump didn’t like being photographed with Tiffany because he deemed her overweight. Westerhout subsequently rode back to the nearby Marriott with Rucker and Holland where she was staying (see what I mean about nothing being off-the-record?).
Westerhout’s supposedly private comments found their way to the White House and she was promptly fired. Arthur Schwartz, a formidable Trump family media operative who has the New York Times running scared, tweeted the Post’s Rucker was the one who blabbed about Westerhout’s comments. The Post insisted that Rucker always acts with the “utmost honor and integrity” but didn’t specifically address the allegation.
Trump’s critics often liken him to Richard Nixon because both presidents disdained the constitution and the media. But there was a major difference between the two presidents. Nixon surrounded himself with loyal aides who went to great lengths to protect him. One of them was Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s administrative assistant who testified before a grand jury that she was responsible for accidentally erasing 18.5 minutes of an explosive tape recording. Woods worked for Nixon for decades before he was elected president. I’m confident in saying Woods never had dinner or got sloshed with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
With the exception of his daughter Ivanka and possibly Jared Kushner, her prickly husband, Trump isn’t surrounded with longtime loyal aides. According to the New York Times, Westerhout, 28, is a Mitt Romney and Republican National Committee hand-me-down who began working for Trump during his transition period. Trump’s wife, Melania, didn’t trust her and Trump received multiple warnings that Westerhout was “immature” because of some indiscreet comments. Yet Trump promoted her, referring to Westerhout as his “beautiful beauty.”
That Westerhout was allowed to even attend a dinner with reporters, let alone left alone with them, underscores the incompetence of Trump’s media operation. When I was in PR, I risked bursting my bladder multiple times because I wouldn’t leave even a seasoned CEO alone with a reporter. The background of Trump’s new press secretary makes clear just how low the bar is to work in his administration.
As best I can tell, Westerhout didn’t intend to harm Trump and merely a victim of bad judgment when plied with drinks. But there’s evidence indicating Trump is surrounded by aides who do want to harm him and his presidency.
The most damaging disclosure about Trump so far was the January 25, 2018 New York Times story saying on multiple occasions he ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. McGahn later gave sworn testimony that he told only three people of his Mueller firing conversations with Trump: former White House chief of staff Reince Preibus (who reportedly referred Westerhout to Trump), his own chief of staff Annie Donaldson, and presidential advisor Steve Bannon.
So, it’s noteworthy that the Times said in its damning January 2018 story that it was based on four sources “told of the matter,” suggesting McGahn confided to an additional person or that he was the Times’ fourth source. It’s also noteworthy that the Times said Trump backed down after McGahn threatened to resign, making it appear the former chief of staff stood up to the president. McGahn testified that he never told Trump he planned to resign and just let him think that he would carry out the president’s instructions.
Admittedly, sometimes things aren’t as they appear, but what’s certain is that four White House staffers leaked very harmful information to the New York Times that potentially could have led to Trump’s impeachment.
In September of last year, the Times published an op-ed it said was submitted by someone working in the White House claiming to be part of a “resistance” comprised of “like-minded colleagues” committed to “thwart parts of (Trump’s) agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Trump has repeatedly declared the media “the enemy of the people.” If he believes that’s true, he should be demanding that some former and current aides be charged with treason for Fraternizing with the Enemy. The problem, of course, is that would ultimately include almost every person whose worked for him.
White House Photo Credit: Sean Pavone