The Justice Department's move to appoint a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation on Wednesday is the latest sign that President Trump is failing to make the leaks fueling allegations against him the "real story."
Since the beginning of his administration, Trump and his critics have engaged in a circular argument over whether the leaks or the allegations should inspire more public concern. From early disclosures about his then-national security adviser, Mike Flynn, to leaks about his private and heated phone conversation with the Australian prime minister in early February, Trump and his team have done battle over stories presented to reporters in the most negative light possible by government officials.
But those stories have also exposed missteps or misrepresentations from the administration, causing many of the president's opponents — and even some of his supporters — to look past the source of the information.
"There is such a dramatic imbalance between what is being reported through leaks and the leaking itself, that if this was Hillary Clinton's administration, I promise you, the leakers would have been the focus," said Mark Serrano, a Republican strategist. "With the [WikiLeaks] email scandal last year, the whole focus was the leaks and not the substance that was reported through those leaks."
"These are people who have, presumably, very high security clearances, who are using that for political purposes," Serrano added, referring to the leakers.
At least one of the leaks to hit the Trump administration this week — the news that the president had disclosed highly sensitive information to Russian officials — could only have come from aides with intimate knowledge of classified material.
Pete Hoekstra, former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said leakers have repeatedly blindsided the White House with politically-motivated disclosures.
"This stuff just comes at them out of left field," Hoekstra told the Washington Examiner. "And they've got to respond."
Hoekstra pointed to the leak about Trump's closed-door meeting with two Russian officials and questioned why a government official would feel compelled to raise his or concerns to a reporter rather than to an internal watchdog.
"If there was person who was concerned about this, so concerned, they have channels within the agency that they could have used," Hoekstra said, citing the inspector general and Congress as examples. "They decided to run to the press...they never even contemplated using some other mechanism that's available to them to bring up and discuss these kinds of issues."
A series of anonymous disclosures to the media from administration officials this week has left Trump's staff scrambling to contain a controversy over alleged Russian collusion and paralyzed by the speed and severity of the latest leaks.
After fending off scrutiny of Trump's classified discussions with Russian officials, intrigue over rumors of a massive personnel shake-up and uncertainty over the existence of a secret White House recording system, the president's team was hit once again Tuesday evening with the revelation that ousted FBI Director James Comey kept documentation of conversations with Trump that included his request that Comey drop an investigation of Flynn.
And the White House was hit once again Wednesday evening by a report in the New York Times, attributed to anonymous sources, that Trump's team knew Flynn was under investigation before they brought him onto the West Wing staff.
The most recent wrinkle in the Flynn controversy emerged just hours after the Justice Department announced that Robert Mueller, former FBI director, would take over the Russia-related investigation as special counsel. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did not share his decision to put Mueller in that role with Attorney General Jeff Sessions or White House counsel Don McGahn until after he finalized the move, a Justice Department official said.
The appointment of Mueller could help the Trump administration reset after a week of intense drama and spiraling crises. Most aides remained silent in the face of this week's revelations after some drew rebukes from the president for promoting an explanation of his decision to fire Comey last week that Trump himself later disputed.
White House and Justice Department officials refused to comment beyond a brief written statement Tuesday night on reports that Trump asked Comey in mid-February to move on from the FBI's investigation of former national security adviser Flynn.
The West Wing staff had, only hours earlier, been beating back allegations from anonymous sources that Trump improperly disclosed sensitive intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office meeting last week. The intelligence was provided to the U.S. by an ally — reportedly Israel — through an intelligence-sharing relationship that could be damaged by an unauthorized disclosure to the Russians, critics said.
"This is not just a question of whether this will affect the relationship with the U.S. intelligence community, but whether it will affect relationships with our foreign intelligence sharing partners," a former senior administration official told the Washington Examiner.
"It's really hard to tell" what kind of effect the disclosure to the Russians will have on those relationships, the official said, noting the episode could create serious challenges for allies who share intelligence with the U.S.
That official pointed to the shocking nature of Trump's slip when asked about the provenance of or motivation behind the classified leaks.
"The intelligence community was probably gobsmacked about what had happened," the official said. "This was about a threat stream."
According to several reports, a White House aide phoned officials at the CIA and NSA shortly after Trump's meeting to inform them that the president had shared intelligence with the Russians.
"If the White House called the NSA and the CIA on an urgent basis in order to warn them and try to address a challenge, then they clearly thought something had gone awry," the former senior administration official said.
But Hoekstra said Trump's opponents had engaged in "hyperbole" by arguing that his disclosure directly put sources and methods at risk.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters on Tuesday that Trump could not have exposed sources and methods because he did not personally know them.
Hoekstra said it was not surprising that Trump was not informed of the source of the intelligence he shared.
"The president's getting this stuff at 30,000 feet. For him not to be told — I mean you're dealing with your national security adviser and if your national security adviser says, 'We have this great information from a very, very reliable source,' that could be sufficient," Hoekstra said. "A president has limited time on his hands, he may not drill down and say, 'Who is this source? How reliable is it?'"
Yet allegations that Trump asked Comey to shut down the Flynn probe prompted Republicans in Congress, many of whom had remained reluctant to pile on the president, to begin ramping up their own investigations of the administration and expressing doubts about the White House's innocence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan attempted to thread the needle between admonishing the leaks and acknowledging their substance on Wednesday.
"There are some people out there who want to harm the president," Ryan said at a press conference. "But we have an obligation to carry out an oversight regardless of which party is in the White House."