“He wanted to polygraph every employee in the building to unearth who it was who spoke to the press,” said another former official, who noted that the president tends to be especially irate when he knows specific news accounts are true. Some White House staffers have even volunteered to take a polygraph, also called a lie-detector test, to prove their innocence after they were suspected of leaking, according to the former official.
The new details of Trump’s repeated interest in polygraphing provide important context on the president’s state of mind as Democrats demand answers about the White House’s handling of records of his interactions with foreign leaders. A whistleblower has accused White House officials of improperly storing transcripts of the president’s phone calls in a system meant for highly classified intelligence secrets, including a conversation with the president of Ukraine that has set off a spiraling impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.
Trump’s interest in polygraphing his own White House staffers began amid constant reports in the first six months of his presidency of infighting and his behind-closed-doors raging about various news stories — especially the Mueller investigation and how the firing of former FBI Director James Comey went down — according to the first former White House official. In particular, Trump has been upset about how certain call transcripts, draft executive orders and other palace intrigue stories have made their way to the media.
Each time, aides all the way up to the chief of staff level have been able to persuade him not to launch such a drastic step, arguing it would be counterproductive. But since those early months, multiple former officials said, he has continued to regularly ask whether his staffers should be polygraphed.
Accounts differ as to just how literally, and seriously, those requests were taken.
“It was something that was discussed and people were trying to placate the president and trying to show that they were taking it as personally and just as seriously as he was,” one of the former White House officials said.
But it’s not just the president: Seven former Trump administration officials said there have been discussions among some White House staffers about using polygraphs to find out who leaked certain materials.
One of the sources, a former Trump NSC official, said the idea floated around after the “Great Leaks of 2017,” when the transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia leaked out.
Early on in Trump’s presidency, Stefan Passantino, who at the time was deputy White House counsel for compliance and ethics, took the lead on examining whether polygraphing employees was something that could legally be carried out or was advisable to carry out.
Passantino said in a text that the counsel’s office “quickly concluded it was not a thing to do.”
The possibility was viewed as “more of a scare tactic” to force people “to sort of fess up to see if they can ferret out leakers or to try to prevent others from leaking any further,” a former White House official said.
Asked for comment, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said: “I think the president and anyone in his administration have the right to be frustrated and even angry about leaks. Leaking information, which is often times classified, only hurts this country.
In the past few weeks, Trump has repeatedly demanded to know the identity of the whistleblower who filed a complaint about his call with the Ukrainian president in which he urged his counterpart to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and his son, while also accusing the anonymous official of being a Democratic partisan.
Under federal law and policy to encourage filing complaints, whistleblowers have numerous protections, including the right to be anonymous and avoid retaliation, although the protections likely wouldn’t apply if the president ordered the termination of the whistleblower after discovering his identity. But there are not necessarily such safeguards for White House officials who might have provided information to the whistleblower.
Former aides cite Trump’s on-again, off-again polygraph obsession as a prime example of how he runs the White House — he talks frequently about the need to do something, they said, while not always issuing explicit instructions.
“The way he does business a lot of times is just keep saying things over and over and over again and hopes that somebody does it, but that gives him deniability if he said, ‘Well I never said specifically to do it,’” the former White House official said.
Polygraph exams have been around for almost 100 years. Typically, they are administered by trained professionals using devices that measure a battery of physiological indicators such as a person’s pulse, breathing, blood pressure and skin conductivity while the person answers questions.
But there have long been questions about their accuracy. A 400-page National Academy of Sciences report found in 2003 that polygraphs were “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results,” such as a high rate of false positives, and recommended against relying upon them.
Inside the federal government, there are a number of protocols regarding whether, when, how and in what context the government can require a polygraph exam. A polygraph is a standard feature in the evaluation process for individuals who work in the intelligence community seeking to obtain a top-secret clearance.
Part of the employment agreement for CIA officers, for instance, is that you can be ordered to immediately take a polygraph anytime you’re suspected of anything improper, according to a former senior CIA official.
“If anyone actually did get polygraphed, and it leaked out to the media, I think the media storm that it caused would be harmful and much more trouble than it’s worth.”
) said Trump should force administration officials to take polygraphs and The New York Times reported that some advisers discussed the idea. The president said at the time that “people have suggested” lie-detector tests and added that “eventually the name of this sick person will come out.
The president and his top aides were especially leery of career government officials detailed from outside agencies to the National Security Council, suspecting them of leaking damaging information to the media.
“The initial leaks of the president’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia really rattled a lot of folks,” a former White House official said. “A lot of the suspicion regarding that was geared at the NSC and potential Obama holdovers causing trouble.
After those foreign leader call transcripts were leaked, Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, brought up the idea of polygraph exams with other administration officials in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as the West Wing was undergoing renovations, according to a former White House official. Axios first reported Sessions’ interest in polygraphing NSC staffers.
“It wasn’t immediately dismissed, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh we should do that. How do we go about doing that?’” said one of the people to whom Sessions mentioned it.
“There’s got to be some kind of fear of being caught.”
President Barack Obama’s second director of national intelligence, James Clapper, ordered in 2012 that intelligence employees be asked on polygraphs about whether they had shared classified information with the media after several closely held national security secrets leaked.
Then-Secretary of State George Shultz fought the idea by arguing that the tests were often inaccurate and trained spies could beat them. He said at the time he would resign if he were ordered to take one.
But some in the government still swear by them. Polygraphs are “part of ‘Leak Investigation 101’ and should absolutely be used when necessary to protect against the unlawful release of national security information, especially when dealing with those entrusted to safeguard against it,” said a current national security official who previously served in the NSC.
Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.