President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
The information the president relayed 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, officials said.
The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.
“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
Trump most likely did not break the law:
For almost anyone in government, discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal. As president, Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.
But this is utterly beside the point. As the Post story goes on to say, quoting someone with knowledge of the conversation Trump had with the Russians, the president went off-script and was bragging to the Russians about the quality of the intelligence he gets.
This is yet another example of Trump being in way over his head, and not understanding how to act like a president. I don’t think for a second that this is evidence that Trump is intentionally in the tank for the Russians. I think he’s just that vain and dumb. He gave to the Russians intelligence that’s so sensitive we don’t even share it with our own allies. And he didn’t do it because he deliberated with his national security team and decided it was in the best interest of the United States to reveal this information to the Russians. He did it because he started running his mouth and didn’t know when to shut it.
Trump supporters, you know very well what you would be saying — what you would be screaming at the top of your lungs, for good reason — if Obama or Clinton had done this.
We now have to worry if the President of the United States is a national security threat because of his character. One more bit from the Post:
U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders, but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points — and often ignores those.
“He seems to get in the room or on the phone and just goes with it, and that has big downsides,” the second former official said. “Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not? That’s what worries me.”
Read the whole thing. Every day is a new adventure. The Russians must be laughing till their sides hurt. Our allies must be scared to death about what damn fool thing the American president will bumble into next because he does not take his job seriously, and apparently thinks it’s a reality show.
We are paying prices we never imagined we’d pay for keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House.
UPDATE: Yes, my hair is on fire over this. At what point does the Republican Congressional leadership have a responsibility to defend the country by denouncing the president? What could they actually do other than invoke the 25th Amendment? Here’s the relevant section:
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
Unless some new information is to surface blowing the Washington Post story up, the President of the United States cannot be trusted to keep highly classified intelligence information out of the hands of American adversaries. This kind of recklessness is a national security threat. And we are only four months into this administration.
If Congress were to remove the president under the 25th Amendment, it would be seen by not a few people as a coup. Can you imagine the political instability that would follow? Would that be worse than the instability Trump’s incompetence is causing? Our allies can no longer trust us with their most closely guarded secrets, because that’s how President Trump rolls.
At some point, and that point is coming very fast and hard, some important Republicans on the Hill and throughout the executive branch are going to have a decision to make. This is not going to get any better.
UPDATE.2: National Security adviser H.R. McMaster issued the following denial this afternoon, without taking questions:
A brief statement for the record. There is nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of the state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Going on the record should outweigh the anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen. Thanks, everybody.
Josh Marshall comments:
McMaster’s specific denials remain what I noted about his statement given originally to the Post. They deny things the Post story does not allege. As I read it, the Post says Trump revealed classified information from which sources and methods information can be inferred, not that he discussed them directly. It’s quite possible Trump may not even know that level of detail.
That part is a classic non-denial denial.
But McMaster adds at the top: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
The “as reported” is a hedge. But more fundamentally saying “the story” is false can mean anything. He doubles down later. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” But again, what didn’t happen? The only reason I can think of to be totalizing in general and lawyerly and non-denialing in the specifics is that you’re trying to deny something that actually did happen.
Even though I think these statements are far more general than they may seem, it’s just as true that McMaster is putting his credibility on the line for Trump.
The Post story reports an alleged event so deadly serious that people who claim it happened have a moral responsibility to come forward, even if it means resignation. McMaster’s on-the-record denial is not conclusive, for the reasons Marshall says, but it does put the anonymous leakers in a bad position. Again: if the Post reported accurate information, then its sources should out themselves, for the sake of national security. If not, then I hope Trump will find the leakers, expose them, and fire them, because what they have said is unconscionable. The Post cites “current and former U.S. officials” alleging this about Trump.
Contra McMaster, this is what the Post story alleges:
Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.
Note well: the Post does not allege that the president discuss intelligence sources or methods. Nor does it allege that he disclosed secret military operations. What the Post does say is that Trump discussed “aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner.” I think Marshall’s reading is correct.
But when McMaster says flat-out that the story “as reported” (whatever that means) is “false,” that’s pretty clear. McMaster is highly respected. Either’s he’s taking a bullet for Trump, or these anonymous sources are trying to destroy Trump by peddling lies.
The stakes could hardly be higher.
UPDATE.3: Tillerson puts out the same lawyerly kind of statement:
During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism. During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.
The Washington Post does not say they did this.
2/ former Intel agent tells me: “Great. That doesn’t matter from an intel perspective. If Trump said ‘oh yeah, ISIS is making'” X with Y…
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 15, 2017
4/ The president could have disclosed details from a SAP without disclosing sources and methods –that’s not the point. Point is the info…
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 16, 2017
6/ McMaster says story “as reported” is false – that means if there is even one detail in it that is wrong he could discount whole thing.
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 16, 2017
UPDATE.4: Great piece on the Lawfare blog talking about the potential effects of this story. I had not thought about this:
Seventh, Trump’s screw-up with the Russians in the Oval Office raises the stakes for whether he records conversations there. Last week, Trump tweeted that “James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” This threat set off a raft of speculation about whether Trump records Oval Office conversations and, if so, what his legal duties are to preserve those recordings. The speculation continued through today, when Sean Spicer studiously declined to address whether any such recording system exists. If such a recording system does it exist, the conversations recorded could go a long way towards answering the mysteries above regarding why the President gave this information to the Russians, and whether he violated his oath or some other law in the process. We thus expect the incident with the Russians to put even more pressure on the White House to answer the question whether the recording system exists.
If Trump does have a recording system in place, then he may have a recording of his meeting with the Russians. Congress has to get to the bottom of this. If there is a recording system there, then Congress had better subpoena those recordings, which are protected under federal law. First, it has to be determined whether or not there is a recording system there.
Also, Lawfare makes it clear that this is not an apparent violation of the law, because POTUS has the right to declassify whatever he wants to, for any reason. But that does not get Trump off the hook by any means. The question, if he did this, is why he decided to reveal this information to the Russians.
Not illegal, but it could be impeachable:
Fifth, this may well be a violation of the President’s oath of office. Questions of criminality aside, we turn to the far more significant issues: If the President gave this information away through carelessness or neglect, he has arguably breached his oath of office. As Quinta and Ben have elaborated on in some detail, in taking the oath President Trump swore to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability. It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of President.
Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.
Congress has alleged oath violations—albeit violations tied to criminal allegations or breaches of statutory obligations—all three times it has passed or considered seriously articles of impeachment against presidents: against Andrew Johnson (“unmindful of the high duties of his oath of office”), Richard Nixon (“contrary to his oath”), and Bill Clinton (“in violation of his constitutional oath”). Further, two of the three articles of impeachment against Nixon alleged no direct violation of the law. Instead, they concerned Nixon’s abuse of his power as President, which, like the President putting the nuclear codes on Twitter, is an offense that can only be committed by the President and has thus never been explicitly prohibited in criminal law.
There’s thus no reason why Congress couldn’t consider a grotesque violation of the President’s oath as a standalone basis for impeachment—a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself. This is particularly plausible in a case like this, where the oath violation involves giving sensitive information to an adversary foreign power. That’s getting relatively close to the “treason” language in the impeachment clauses; it’s pretty easy to imagine a hybrid impeachment article alleging a violation of the oath in service of a hostile foreign power. So legally speaking, the matter could be very grave for Trump even though there is no criminal exposure.
This approach to sensitive information does not appear to be a one-off. President Trump has previously taken heat for his cavalier attitude towards safeguarding classified information, for example when he openly reviewed plans related to a North Korean nuclear test in the Mar-a-Lago dining room in full view of other diners or when he appeared to inadvertently confirm the authenticity of leaked CIA documents on Fox News.
If this happened, then it is too dangerous to have this man as president, and he should be impeached. If you are POTUS and don’t know to watch your mouth when senior officials of the Russian government are standing in your office, you cannot be trusted with anything.