It’s a premise fit for a satirist less subtle than Andy Borowitz: A chatty president Trump mindlessly shares highly classified information with Russian officials in the Oval Office.
But we’ve been living in a ham-fisted satire of American political decay for at least six months now — and so that premise isn’t a sketch-comedy conceit, but merely headline news. As the Washington Post reports:
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 that Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
The information Trump 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 that Trump’s decision to do so risks 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 National Security Agency.
The president “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies,” according to one U.S. official who spoke with the Washington Post.
That information concerned the details of an ongoing Islamic State plot. Trump reportedly disclosed not only the nature of that threat, and his administration’s potential responses to it, but also the city in which America’s security partner gathered the relevant intelligence. That could be a problem, even if our unnamed ally forgives Trump (for he knows not what he does):
The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said that the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and possibly disrupting it.
According to the Post, the president’s disclosure would be illegal … if anyone but the president (who enjoys immense power to declassify materials) had done it.
BuzzFeed News confirmed the Washington Post’s story, with one official telling the outlet that “it’s far worse than what has already been reported.”
Administration officials offered a number of denials, which varied significantly in tone. First, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell told CNN, “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.” Then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in a brief press conference that “the story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. … At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed.” As Vox notes, the Post never said that Trump revealed “intelligence sources or methods.” The paper reported that Trump naming the location could allow the Russians — who are extremely capable at intelligence gathering — to narrow down who the source was.
Similarly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that Trump didn’t “discuss sources, methods, or military operations” with the Russians – though he didn’t explicitly say that the story is false. Powell and McMaster were in the room when Trump met with the Russians, but Tillerson was not.
Two Republican leaders expressed concern about the reports that the president divulged highly classified information. “Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” said Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place … but the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office said he hopes the president explains himself. “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” said his spokesman, Doug Andres. “The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”
But the reactions from most elected Republicans were oddly sanguine.
One may interpret Trump’s audacious candor with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak as a testament to his illicit friendliness with the Kremlin. Trump’s meeting with the Russians did come on the morning after he dispatched James Comey, in an apparent attempt to derail the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian hackers.
But an alternative explanation for Trump’s disclosure is that he is a thoughtless, lazy windbag who refuses to prepare for diplomatic meetings, says whatever comes into his head at any given moment, and sees his classified intelligence briefings as little more than affirmations of his own importance.
Some of Trump’s recent actions lend credence to the first interpretation; virtually everything he’s done in his political life qualifies as evidence for the second.
This post has been updated throughout.