It was the usual post-gaffe/scandal/outrage routine. Donald Trump does something indefensible and, in most cases, inexplicable. The White House rushes to settle on a message, which is usually, shall we say, disingenuous, but only because to tell the truth would be to reveal the boss as an idiot/liar/incompetent.
The next morning, Trump, unhappy with the reception the message is getting, tweets out a whole new message that invariably contradicts the previous one and dependably tosses his advisers under the bus (now, officially, the most overused phrase in the Trump era).
That’s where we were in the story at the moment National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, presumably inadvertently, ran the bus back over Trump.
McMaster was holding a press briefing to explain what had happened last week in the meeting between Trump and Russian diplomats, in which Trump had, according to a Washington Post story, passed on code-word (spy talk for way beyond top secret) information about a possible ISIS attack involving a laptop. In doing so, he may have risked upending an ally’s sensitive operation and putting the source, an actual person or persons, in danger.
In a classic of the non-denial-denial genre, McMaster had labeled the story “false” on Monday night without pointing out any actual falsities. But when Trump woke up the next morning, he basically confirmed the story in a Tuesday tweetstorm, saying that he had an “absolute right” to pass along whatever facts he had passed along. And so McMaster, putting his integrity at risk, was forced to concede that the facts of the story may not have been false but that the premise of the story was — because Trump’s actions, he said, were “wholly appropriate.”
McMaster would go on to say “wholly appropriate” a bunch of times, and then, just as he was leaving the stage, he noted that “the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from” and had not been told who the source was, as if Trump’s ignorance was also wholly appropriate.
In other words, it was just as we had supposed. Trump had a juicy bit of information — “great intel,” as the Post quoted him as saying to the Russians — and was thrilled to pass it along. He didn’t know where it came from. He didn’t know or appreciate the risks of passing it on. There had been no plan, according to McMaster, for the president to bring up the intelligence. It was off the cuff. It was just some old pals shooting the, uh, Oval Office breeze.
And it would all seem even less appropriate, and more sensitive, when The New York Times later reported that the source was Israeli intelligence while noting the obvious, that Russia could pass along any details to Iran or Syria.
You can wonder why the president hadn’t been fully briefed, why he hadn’t been told of the information’s great sensitivity, why he had walked into a meeting with Russians without having discussed which areas might be dangerous to discuss other than, you know, possible campaign collusion. Maybe it’s because, as The Times is reporting, Trump thinks McMaster talks too much and is a “pain.”
But more than that, you can wonder how the news that Trump was not informed makes Trump look like anything but uninformed. We know that Trump likes his morning intelligence briefings reduced to a single page with bullet points. We’re told that he doesn’t always bother with the single-pager either.
And now we’re told that Trump, not wholly briefed, gave away information so sensitive — information that we don’t even share with close allies — that intelligence sources were forced to leak the news to the Post because they had to do something to try to stop Trump’s leaking. The story would then be confirmed by reporting from the Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and others.
Did Trump have an absolute right? It is true that presidents can declassify any information at any time?That includes a president whose campaign was based in large part on the notion Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted with classified information because her email server might have been hacked. Trump didn’t wait to be hacked, although, in an earlier gaffe/scandal/outrage, he had, of course, accused Barack Obama of wiretapping him. Trump just jumped in, apparently convinced that the Russians could be trusted with code-word secrets.
The presumption on presidents and classified information is that the leader of the free world is trustworthy. But this is the same leader who fired the FBI director for that “Russia thing,” on the day before he met the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office, the same president who fired his previous national security adviser for lying about his ties to the Russians, the same president who barred the American press from the meeting but welcomes a photographer from the Russian state news agency.
The question being asked now is whether foreign intelligence agencies or, for that matter, American intelligence agencies can trust the president with sensitive information. It’s the question being asked in Congress, even by a few (although only a very few) Republicans. It’s a question that will certainly be asked of Americans in the next set of polls.
But it’s a question for which there really is no good answer. It’s obvious that you can’t keep classified information from a president, who actually needs the intelligence to make critical, world-shaping decisions. Sadly, that’s even true when the president is unaccountably the wholly inappropriate Donald Trump.
Picture by ResoluteSupportMedia via Flickr: Creative Commons