President Trump is responding to the backlash against the allegations that he shared “highly classified” information with the Russians by saying he had “the absolute right to do” so.
He tweeted this morning:
…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
And he went a step further again taking aim at fired former FBI Director James Comey and “leakers”:
I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
The irony seemed lost on Trump that he himself is being accused of being a “leaker” — and that he criticized Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of classified information during the campaign, calling her “not fit”:
Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team "were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information." Not fit!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2016
The Washington Post broke the news Monday night, and others confirmed and added to reporting, that Trump revealed to Russian officials in a meeting in the Oval Office details of an ISIS plot to use laptops on aircraft. The information was classified and reportedly came from an ally in the Middle East. NPR has not confirmed the details of the reports.
Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Monday night that the story in the Post “as reported, is false.” But he also noted that the president talked about “common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
McMaster took to the podium in the White House Briefing Room and told reporters that he stood by his statement. “The premise of that article is false,” McMaster said, though he did not say the entirety of the article is false and would not confirm nor deny that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians.
“What the president shared was wholly appropriate,” McMaster said. He added that there was “no lapse in national security.”
Instead, he focused on leaks. “I think national security is put at risk by this leak and leaks like this,” he said.
McMaster also did not say whether the president decided in the moment to share the information. He also revealed a key detail that is going to raise more questions.
“The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from,” McMaster said. “He wasn’t briefed.”
Reporters were not able to follow up, because McMaster then walked off.
But where the information came from is a key piece of information, given it could put operatives with a key ally at risk.
None of that explains why the White House was reaching out to the CIA and National Security Agency to let them know what the president had revealed. McMaster claimed that was merely out of an “overabundance of caution.”
Michael Anton, spokesman for the National Security Council, tells NPR’s Tamara Keith, “My conscience is clear saying there is no contradiction between McMaster’s statement and the president’s tweet.”
To be totally clear: if Trump revealed classified information, it is not illegal. The president can declassify anything he wants — just by saying it. There’s no formal process he needs to go through. But this is the kind of information was so “highly classified” that it could subject anyone else to jail time.
Lawfare blog weighed in on that Monday:
“The reason is that the very purpose of the classification system is to protect information the President, usually through his subordinates, thinks sensitive. So the President determines the system of designating classified information through Executive Order, and he is entitled to depart from it at well. Currently, Executive Order 13526 governs national security information.
“The Supreme Court has stated in Department of the Navy v. Egan that “[the President’s] authority to classify and control access to information bearing on national security … flows primarily from this Constitutional investment of power in the President and exists quite apart from any explicit congressional grant.” Because of his broad constitutional authority in this realm, the president can, at any time, either declassify information or decide whom to share it with.”
Still, the issue of criminality is not the whole of the discussion. As NPR’s Mara Liasson called what Trump is accused of doing on NPR podcast Up First — “lawful but awful.” (Lawfare got into more of the potential problems, like the possibility of this violating the president’s oath of office and raising the stakes for whether Trump records conversations in the Oval and for his FBI director pick.)
But there are also potential national-security consequences. There’s the potential that:
1. The Middle East ally who gave this to the U.S. will be less likely to share information,
2. Other even closer U.S. allies may be less likely to share intelligence, and
3. If Nos. 1 and 2 happen, that would put Americans at at risk, as the U.S. tries to prevent terrorist attacks and threats like the one Trump allegedly told the Russians about.
Trump also continues to have problems with the intelligence community. It’s never a good thing for a president to be at odds with the very people who are tasked with keeping the country safe. If the focus of either or both is getting back at the other, who’s watching the gate?
Of course, the U.S. has had problematic intelligence situations with the rest of the world. Some in China are upset with the National Security Agency, for example, for reportedly having been behind the origination of the virus that was used in the Ransomware attack before losing control of it.
The NSA was also at the heart of the Edward Snowden drama, which revealed the U.S. to be spying on world leaders, including close allies.
And, of course, there’s the intelligence failures on a lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the rationale that led to the invasion of the country.
U.S. alliances survived those and more, but all of those were with presidents in office who were far more careful with their language, not to mention their tweets.