Shortly after the Washington Post’s devastating report that President Trump “revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador” and “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State,” Republicans in Congress began to weigh in. “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information but the president does have the right to do that,” insisted Senator John McCain. “It’s no longer classified the minute he utters it,” explained Senator Jim Risch.
The argument was eerily familiar. Trump, as his supporters pointed out, had a legal right to fire FBI Director James Comey. Likewise legal, Trump’s decision to hold on to his vast and non-transparent business empire, the value of which he can increase through his powers as president. (“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he exulted.) That is true, and the legality Trump enjoys extends much further than even his supporters have suggested. Since the president can pardon anybody, probably including himself, he can operate with hardly any legal restraint at all.
The president has a massive amount of leeway because the system is set up with the unstated presumption that the president is a responsible person who will act in a broadly legitimate, competent fashion. Trump’s brief tenure in office so far has supplied a constant stream of evidence that this reasoning does not apply. Fears that Trump could not be trusted with classified intelligence have circulated among allies and the American intelligence community since his election. “U.S. officials and analysts fear other countries will hesitate to share information with a Kremlin-friendly Trump administration,” reported Politico’s Nahal Toosi in January. “Israeli intelligence officials are concerned that the exposure of classified information to their American counterparts under a Trump administration could lead to their being leaked to Russia and onward to Iran,” reported Haaretz that same month.” Now those fears have been vindicated. As one former senior intelligence official tells conservative Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes, “Sharing of another country’s intel w/o permission is one of the brightest red lines in the intel world.”
One of the oddities of the moment is that Republican officials who work closely with Trump almost uniformly regard him as wildly unfit for office. Trump’s gross unsuitability for office is the subtext of the constant stream of leaks that have emanated from his administration (and, before that, his campaign). James Comey told associates he found the president “outside the realm of normal,” even “crazy,” reported the New York Times recently. A Republican close to the White House told the Washington Post Trump is “in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion.” A friend of Trump, trying to spin the latest debacle in the most forgiving way, tells Politico, “He doesn’t really know any boundaries. He doesn’t think in those terms … He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying. I don’t think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn’t want to do that.” (This was offered as an alternative to the suspicion that Trump is deliberately undermining U.S. intelligence to benefit his Russian friends.)
And yet, outside the inner circle of Republicans with access to the commander-in-chief, Trump’s popularity remains respectable, even solid. The conservative base is largely unaware of the constant revelations of Trump’s gross incompetence, or has been trained to ignore them as propaganda emanating from the administration’s enemies in the deep state or the liberal media. In red America, Trump remains a hero at best, and a competent, normal president at worst.
And so, at the moment, Congress remains in the hands of a party that conceives of its role as Trump’s junior partner. His erratic behavior is disconcerting to them, but their pain is mostly private, and mostly confined to the risks it implies to their domestic agenda. The system is designed so that the only remedy for a president who cannot faithfully act in the public interest is impeachment. For the moment, that course of action — the only one that can save the country from the dire risk of its man-child president — is unfathomable to the Republicans who have a hammerlock on government.