President Donald Trump meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office on May 10. (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Associated Press)
President Trump’s Tuesday morning tweets are correct: As president, he has the legal authority to share intelligence with pretty much whomever he wants. But that doesn’t mean he was right to do so last week when he apparently gave top Russian diplomats highly classified information gathered by an ally about possible Islamic State terror strategies.
That apparently spontaneous decision, security officials later told reporters, endangered the source of the intelligence and may have compromised relations with the ally — reportedly Israel — that first acquired the details. Assuming it happened as described, first by the Washington Post and then by other news organizations, it was an irresponsible move by the president, wholly in keeping with his inexperience — and his stubborn refusal to learn. At worst, such a breach could lead to the exposure — or even death — of an intelligence source; even if that doesn’t happen, it could harm the U.S. government’s rapport with crucial allies who now have reason to not trust the U.S. with sensitive intelligence details — a chill that could have disastrous effects on counter-terrorism efforts.
Putting aside the national security implications, this episode, and how it played out at break-neck speed Monday, proved once again that the administration is in a spiral of dysfunction, careening from one controversy to the next and never managing to get out of damage-control mode. That, obviously, makes it difficult to move forward with an agenda of any sort. Even Republicans are begin to sound nervous: “The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This week’s mini-scandal raises a series of interrelated questions and concerns. One is whether Trump’s aides told the truth about what happened. After the Washington Post story was published, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, strode down the White House driveway on Monday afternoon to tell reporters “that the story that came out tonight as reported is false … I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” But on Tuesday morning, Trump himself seemed to acknowledge that at least some portion of the story was true when he tweeted: “As president I wanted to share with Russia…which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.” (This contradiction comes just a week after the president fired FBI director James Comey, supposedly because of his handling of the Hillary Clinton probe last year — but then acknowledged in an NBC interview that that was not in fact why Comey was fired at all.)
There’s also reason to be concerned that the president is not doing the work necessary to understand the complicated subjects that face him. Perhaps he blurted out sensitive national security secrets to the Russian ambassador because he honestly didn’t know any better — because he’s not doing his homework. Since Trump took office, there have been repeated stories suggesting that he is unwilling to read long, complicated briefing papers and that he wants his information short, simple and on a single page. Maybe that approach works in reality television or in the hotel business, but it’s not what most Americans expect of a president of the United States.
A further concern is hypocrisy. This is a president, after all, who came to power at least in part on the much-exaggerated and highly sensationalized assertion that his opponent had so badly mishandled classified information that she deserved to go to jail. What are we now to think when the president himself, less than four months into office, is accused of revealing critical state secrets, leaving national security officials in and out of government deeply concerned that he has undercut the nation’s efforts to fight terrorism?
As Trump prepares for his first overseas trip later this week, observers around the world are wondering whether he can rise to the occasion, pull his administration together, regain control of his government. We’re waiting to see.