The Fallout From Trump’s Leak to the Russians: A Question of Competence

Last night we learned that Trump revealed classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador during his meeting with them in the Oval Office last week. Before discussing the fallout from that leak, it is important to be clear about exactly what happened.

First if all, what the president shared with the Russians wasn’t U.S. intelligence, it came from an unnamed ally.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State.

Secondly, the Washington Post describes what the president leaked as “code-word information.” Amy Zegart explains:

There are three basic levels of classified information. Confidential information is defined as anything that could reasonably be expected to “cause damage” to American national security if shared without authorization. Secret information is one step up, considered to have the potential to cause “serious damage” if revealed. Top Secret information is a higher classification level still, comprising anything that could reasonably be expected to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to U.S. national security if revealed.

Code word is beyond Top Secret. It limits access to classified information to a much narrower pool of people to provide an extra layer of security.

Thirdly, we don’t know why Trump shared this information with the Russians, but there is this from the Washington Post story:

…officials expressed concern about Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences…

In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump seemed to be boasting about his inside knowledge of the looming threat. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president said, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

Politico adds this:

One adviser who often speaks to the president said the conversation was likely freewheeling in the Oval Office, and he probably wanted to impress the officials.

“He doesn’t really know any boundaries. He doesn’t think in those terms,” this adviser said. “He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying.

Both stories point to a combination of ego gratification and ignorance.

All of that lays the groundwork for the fallout. On Friday, the president will travel abroad. Julie Pace notes that:

For months, U.S. allies have anxiously wondered if President Donald Trump could be trusted with some of the world’s most sensitive national security secrets.

Now, just a few days before Trump’s debut on the international stage, he’s giving allies new reasons to worry.

We don’t know which country gathered the intelligence Trump leaked to the Russians, but the assumption has developed that it is in the Middle East. Here’s more on that from Amy Zegart:

Then there’s the impact on America’s unnamed ally, whom the Post reported was already nervous about sharing such sensitive intelligence with the United States. It is difficult to penetrate the Islamic State, and there is a major risk that this breach will close down a vital source. It’s an even bigger deal in the big picture, potentially jeopardizing intelligence cooperation with other U.S. allies around the world.

Closer to home, we have yet another spectacle of Trump throwing his defenders under the bus. Last night several prominent members of his national security team publicly denied the story in the Washington Post.

Sec. of State Tillerson: During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism. During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.

National Security Advisor McMaster: The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president of the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, where intelligent sources or methods discussed. The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known…I was in the room. It didn’t happen.

Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell: This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.

As many have noted, both Tillerson and McMaster denied elements that the Washington Post story never claimed – which is a classic form of non-denial denial. But both Powell and McMaster called the story “false.” In other words, they went out on a limb to defend the president.

This morning on twitter, Trump threw them under the bus and basically affirmed that the story was true.

The president’s right to de-classify information has not been questioned. This is not an issue of legality, it is an issue of competence. The remedy here might not be impeachment, but Article 25 of the Constitution.

Last night a professor who specializes in narcissism took to twitter to say this:

As Houle suggests above and I have stated frequently, this will not get better and shows every sign of getting worse. As the president continues to destroy the trust of both our allies abroad and even his own defenders here at home, he isolates himself into an increasingly closed circle. From there he will continue to lash out at anyone who questions his distorted reality and competence. Anyone who fails to see that and doesn’t stand up for the country is simply deluding themselves and asking for more. And yes, I’m looking at you, Congressional Republicans and members of Trump’s cabinet.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.