Yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post released a bombshell of a report, detailing how President Trump nonchalantly disclosed highly compartmentalized information to the “Two Sergeys”, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak, during their Oval Office meeting last week. In a nutshell, a swaggering President Trump (“I get great intel, I have people brief me on great intel every day”) reportedly revealed certain details about how the United States obtained widely-discussed intelligence about ISIS’ plans for developing undetectable laptop bombs for detonation on planes.
The public uproar seems to have been anchored on the fact that President Trump shared information with Russia, of all countries. The optics are absolutely terrible, given that the conversation with the Russians happened on the same week Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was himself pursuing leads into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence in last year’s elections. But ultimately, that’s all they are: bad optics. In the greater scheme of things, this is a red herring. The fact that Trump appeared to recklessly reveal trade secrets to an adversarial power is at the crux of the story, not which adversarial power, per se.
President Trump’s childish bragging to his interlocutors about “great” intel is the other main source of dismay and outrage, and here at least, the Post‘s reporting just feels correct. After over 100 days of this Administration, we have a pretty good sense of our Commander in Chief, and regrettably, this sounds like something he might say. Through scores of interviews over the past few weeks, our President routinely comes off sounding like some kind of Hollywood ingénue, constantly in the process of learning obvious things for the first time.
But here, too, we ought to be careful. The Post‘s sourcing is anonymous, and is the retelling of an overheard conversation. The words attributed to Trump betray such abject ignorance of the gravity of the matters he is dealing with that it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that this detail was maliciously leaked. This Administration is riven by so much mistrust and mutual suspicion that anything is possible. Just because it sounds right does not mean we ought to embrace the reporting quite yet.
Lawfare boiled down the question like this: if the President disclosed this information in an impulsive and boastful kind of way, this is catastrophic. No, the President has not broken any laws—he technically can’t reveal classified information by definition; by the very act of revealing it to non-cleared individuals, he is declassifying it. The question is whether he did so consciously or carelessly. To put it in the bluntest terms possible, if the President blindly blundered into this mess, it betrays a level of negligence that will give people good cause to doubt that he is fit for office.
Trump’s team clearly spent the night grappling with this issue, and released a lawyerly pair of tweets this morning, which attempt to put the President firmly on the side of intentionality, rather than carelessness:
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
…to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
Expect this to be the line of defense going forward. Trump meant to do this. He is in control of himself, and is leading deliberately rather than blindly improvising. The goal was to get the Russians more engaged in the fight against terror.
But is it fully exculpatory? As a judgment call, it’s still a poor one, for reasons that have, once again, very little to do with Russia as such. As the Washington Post said, what was damaging in Trump’s disclosure is that he revealed details—specifically the city controlled by ISIS “where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat”—that could let a hostile intelligence service ferret out the source. Trump clearly sees the Russians as potential allies, much more so than any Russia watcher deems prudent, so it clearly didn’t occur to him that the Russians are overwhelmingly likely use the information for their own, narrow, bloody ends. But the death of several informers on the ground and the drying up of a potentially critical source of intelligence in Syria is small beer compared to the real damage wrought.
The damage has to do with the intelligence-sharing relationships we have around the world. Israeli papers were reporting in January that Mossad was already skittish about sharing intelligence with the United States ahead of Trump’s inauguration. Such worries today seem to have been fully warranted. Even if we are to take Trump at his tweets, and grant that he made a conscious decision to share classified details with the Russians in order to make it more likely that they cooperate with him against ISIS, not a single intelligence agency is going to think that the President made a prudent decision here. The world’s spies know Russia and its security services for what they are, and at best they now see Trump as a knave. It’s almost certain that the Israelis will start withholding important information from us, if they hadn’t already. And some serious soul-searching is likely to take place among the “Five Eyes”, as well.
That’s where the debate stands as of this morning: was the President “extremely careless” in the handling of highly compartmentalized intelligence, or did he just make a conscious decision that is almost certain to cost us the goodwill and partnership of our allies around the world? It’s hard to say which one is worse.