Let’s begin with this proposition — there is a proper and defensible mechanism for disclosing classified information, even to a geopolitical rival. If the president determines that such disclosure advances the national interests of the United States, and if the president solicits the advice and counsel of the intelligence community and his national-security advisers to minimize the possibility of revealing sources and methods, betraying the trust of allies, or causing any other damage to national security, then it can even be prudent and proper to disclose secret information. In other words, disclosure should be the result of a deliberative process, not a momentary impulse.
Now, let’s contrast this appropriate process with the charges against President Trump and, crucially, with his defense.
The charge is serious. The Washington Post and numerous other media outlets reported that Trump impulsively shared highly classified information with visiting Russian officials — information that “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.” According the Post, the information “had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.” The New York Times has identified the partner in question as Israel.
Trump’s disclosure was allegedly dangerous enough to trigger a scramble within the government to “contain the damage” by, among other measures, “placing calls to the CIA and National Security Agency.” Officials asked the Post not to publish the full details of the leak. Earlier today, The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson wrote that he knows one of the sources for the media’s stories and that the reality is even worse than the reports:
I am told that what the President did is actually far worse than what is being reported. The President does not seem to realize or appreciate that his bragging can undermine relationships with our allies and with human intelligence sources. He also does not seem to appreciate that his loose lips can get valuable assets in the field killed.
It doesn’t take a 3,000-word explainer to describe how this allegation is alarming. But let’s note this — Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in part because her own mishandling of classified information meant that Russia could have had access to American secrets. According to this report, Trump gave Russia dangerous secrets, impulsively, perhaps as part of an effort to impress his guests.
And what is Trump’s defense? Yesterday one of the most respected members of his administration, national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, issued a terse statement claiming that the Washington Post story, “as reported,” was false. After denying that “sources and methods” were compromised, he said, “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”
The statement was carefully crafted to create the impression of a blanket denial while still giving the administration some wiggle room on the details. Then, this morning, Trump not only refused to deny giving Russia classified information but, in two tweets, said this:
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining [. . .] to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.
In other words, he undercut the blanket denial. Today, McMaster took questions and clarified his earlier statement. Here are his key assertions:
1. He stood by his statement yesterday but said the “premise” of the Post article was false.
2. It wasn’t inappropriate for Trump to disclose the information, and his doing so did not undermine national security.
3. The disclosure was “consistent with the routine sharing of information” between the president and foreign leaders.
4. Trump “wasn’t even aware of where this information came from.”
5. The disclosure occurred in the “context of the conversation” and apparently not as a result of a deliberative process.
There is no such thing as ‘no harm, no foul’ in this context.
In other words, congratulations America, you got lucky. Despite not knowing the source of the information and apparently making a spur-of-the-moment decision, Trump (allegedly) didn’t hurt our national security.
McMaster is perhaps Trump’s best spokesperson, presenting Trump’s best case, and it’s still unsatisfactory. There is no such thing as “no harm, no foul” in this context. This is not the way we want presidents handling classified information — especially during conversations with a hostile foreign power. While I can imagine a context in which an experienced and knowledgeable president could make a disclosure decision on the fly, the key here is “knowledgeable.” Disclosing information without knowing the source is a throw of the dice.
And remember, this is the administration’s defense. The original allegations are still hanging out there, and the reporters are standing by their stories. Defenses and denials are not the same thing as refutations. If the initial charge is true, then the president’s behavior is inexcusable and potentially deeply damaging. If his defense is true, his behavior is still irresponsible.
Finally, there is a truth of the matter. The allegations are too serious to be left to the realm of charges and countercharges. The White House should share available records of the conversation with the relevant congressional oversight committees, and those committees should do their job, examine the evidence, and issue a public report of their findings. The American people should be troubled by what we know. But until we know all the facts, we don’t yet know how troubled we should be.