Here’s something that you can cross off your list of concerns about the Donald Trump campaign: Despite what you may have read on Twitter Wednesday night, he did not receive his first intelligence briefing and immediately leak classified information at a campaign rally. On the other hand, the incident bolsters reports that the Republican presidential nominee gets all of his information from cable news — and apparently, he isn’t even watching that closely.
At a rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Wednesday, Trump described a video that shows Iranian officials unloading a $400-million cash payment the U.S. sent in January as Tehran released four American detainees. “I’ll never forget the scene this morning,” Trump says, eight minutes into the video below. “Iran — I don’t think you’ve heard this anywhere but here — Iran provided all of that footage, the tape, of taking that money off that airplane.”
“They have a perfect tape, obviously done by a government camera, and the tape is of the people taking the money off the plane,” Trump continued. “It’s a military tape. It’s a tape that was a perfect angle, nice and steady.”
Trump is referring to a report in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal about the Obama administration organizing an airlift of “wooden pallets stacked with euros, Swiss francs and other currencies” just as Tehran released the American detainees. The payment — which the U.S. owed Iran for a botched arms deal in the ’70s — and the prisoner release were part of the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama announced at the time. Gawker’s Michael Ballaban explains that while it’s reasonable to question the U.S. government’s actions here, this isn’t the new scandal it’s being made out to be:
What people seem to be missing is the fact that, while the Journal is the first to report that the payment was made in cash, literally everything else about the story — the money, the prisoner release, the quid pro quo allegations — was reported back in January.
Regardless, the story about the U.S. sending Iran a “bribe” has been all over the news — and what is new is the video Trump described. Trump’s description was pretty detailed (especially for a guy whose policy proposals usually consist of how he’ll make things “so good”); he references a “top secret” video shot with a “government camera” that you haven’t heard about “anywhere but here.” This, coupled with the news that Trump and Clinton can begin receiving classified national-security briefings this week, led the Huffington Post to run a story suggesting that Trump might have leaked classified information. They reported:
This raises the possibility that Trump was either fabricating the contents of a non-existent video, or he was disclosing information to which he has newly been granted access.
Trump’s description of the “top secret” tape came just days after the Republican presidential nominee became eligible to receive classified intelligence briefings — a privilege afforded to the nominees of the two major political parties in order to prepare them, should they win the White House.
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign declined to say how Trump acquired the video.
Since the ’50s, the sitting president has provided his potential successors with intelligence briefings as a courtesy. This year, both Republicans and Democrats have suggested that the opposing nominee is so reckless that they should be denied briefings, but National Intelligence Director James Clapper Jr. said following the conventions that the agency would meet with both candidates, perhaps as early as this week.
The alarming idea that Trump would reveal what he learned in an intelligence briefing seemed plausible, especially following Joe Scarborough’s claim that the candidate repeatedly asked a national-security expert why the U.S. can’t use its nuclear weapons. But upon further inspection, that’s not what happened.
First, NBC News and Trump’s campaign manager both say the intelligence briefings have not started yet. Second, intelligence officials would not show candidates a video of Iranians moving cash we sent them. Lanhee Chen, the chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told the Washington Post that candidates only get two or three briefings, and they’re not very specific:
The briefings themselves Chen described as a sort of presentation followed by a question-and-answer period. “It is, as I understand it, the same team of briefers from the intelligence community that prepare the briefing for the candidate” as those who do the president’s daily briefing, Chen said. “But the level of detail as well as the amount of information covered is not the same. It is meant to be a background briefing more than anything else.”
So, what the hell was Trump talking about? It’s not entirely clear, but the likeliest explanation is that he saw a video on the news and wildly misinterpreted what it was about. On Wednesday night, the Huffington Post updated its story, noting that Trump may have been referring to footage shown on Fox News of the American detainees safely arriving back in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 17. Here’s the clip on Fox & Friends:
But as the Huffington Post notes:
Contrary to what Trump said about the video he claimed to have seen, this video was not shot in Iran, it did not show the exchange of cash, it was not “top secret,” it was not “a military tape,” and it was not “provided by Iran.” Nor was it released to “embarrass the United States,” as Trump repeatedly claimed.
They add that the Trump campaign never responded to their requests for comment — but they did get back to the Washington Post when they asked if this was the video in question. “Yes,” spokesperson Hope Hicks said in an email. “Merely the b-roll footage included in every broadcast.”
Hicks has yet to elaborate on why Trump thought a video of hostages walking off a plane in Geneva actually showed “money pouring off a plane” in Iran. NBC Nightly News’s Micah Grimes tweeted that a Trump campaign official said he was talking about footage shown on the Today show:
But that makes even less sense, since that footage shows someone neatly packing bills into a cardboard box, with no plane in sight.
Trump vividly describing a video that probably doesn’t exist really shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it appears he routinely fabricates interactions with other people. (And as the AP reports, it’s only one of several patently false claims he’s made about the Iran story.) But maybe this is all just part of Trump’s strategy. Now, if he does accidentally leak classified information, no one will believe him.