In May 2017, Donald Trump hosted Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and then–Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak for a friendly chat in the Oval Office. There, he promised his guests that, having just fired FBI director James Comey, he now had a free hand to establish chummy relations. Trump also casually shared a highly classified intelligence secret, one that blew up a sensitive Israeli counterterrorist operation.
In the wake of that debacle, American intelligence decided to extract a high-level intelligence asset from Russia, CNN’s Jim Sciutto reports. In the midst of “wide concern in the intelligence community about mishandling of intelligence by Trump and his administration,” the United States exfiltrated its source from Russia in a secret mission.
The fascinating question is what kinds of concerns the intelligence community had. There are two possible answers.
The first and most benign is that Trump was deemed too sloppy and undisciplined to hold a secret that, if blown, would get an American asset killed. There is evidence for this possibility. The president has held open-air war-room meetings at Mar-a-Lago, almost inviting Chinese spies to eavesdrop. He has given classified information to more than two dozen officials who failed to obtain proper security clearances. Just this month, Trump tweeted out a classified satellite photo of Iranian facilities, potentially giving away secret information.
It is possible to explain all this behavior as a combination of Trump’s laziness, lack of discipline, and I-am-too-a-real-president need to show off his power. The irony, of course, is that the secure handling of classified information was Trump’s most potent campaign theme. His demands to lock up his opponent for using a private email server that potentially would allow hackers to to steal State Department secrets formed the core of his attack. Trump has, incredibly, repurposed this attack against new antagonists, assailing Comey for leaking a memorandum detailing Trump’s Mafia-like attempts to secure his loyalty. Trump sycophants like Byron York and Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel have written indignantly about the former FBI director’s mishandling of classified information, while steadfastly running interference for a president who is a security sieve.
That is one possible interpretation: Trump is incompetent on a historic scale and in a way that exposes himself and his supporters as comical hypocrites.
The second interpretation is much worse. That interpretation would be that American officials decided Trump was too compromised by Russia to be trusted with a secret like a high-level spy in Russia.
There is plenty of evidence to support this theory, too. Before Trump’s inauguration, American intelligence officials warned their Israeli counterparts to “avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials” after Trump took office, for fear that Russia had secret leverage over the incoming president. (That warning was borne out a few months later, of course, when Trump spilled a sensitive Israeli secret to the visiting Russians.) Trump has held numerous secretive meetings with Vladimir Putin, excluding other American officials and even confiscating a translator’s notes.
Robert Mueller’s report found incidentally that Putin had blackmail leverage over Trump during the 2016 campaign. But Mueller stated that his focus was on violations of criminal law, not counterintelligence, and the public has yet to learn what happened to the counterintelligence investigation into Trump.
Well into this year, the New York Times was reporting that American officials have hidden details of their counterintelligence work from Trump “for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials.”
CNN’s report does not say why American spies decided that Trump might leak their spy’s identity to Russia. Too incompetent? Or too compromised? Either possibility is disqualifying. It’s pretty hard to run a superpower when the person with the highest security clearance is also the highest security risk.