Classified intel to the Russians

1) Okay, the story if you’ve somehow missed it:

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

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 president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” said H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who participated in the meeting. “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”

McMaster reiterated his statement in a subsequent appearance at the White House on Monday and described the Washington Post story as “false,” but did not take any questions.

Okay, so I was all over this, and then the refutation from McMaster gives me a lot of pause.  This is why it was so smart (though, not really intentionally so) of Trump to replace Flynn with McMaster.  If Flynn was still in this job, I would not have a nanosecond of pause from a denial.

2) Josh Marshall argues that it’s not even really a real denial:

This is a pretty declarative and all-encompassing statement. But that’s true only on the surface.

McMaster’s specific denials remain what I noted about his statement given originally to the Post. They deny things the Post story does not allege. As I read it, the Post says Trump revealed classified information from which sources and methods information can be inferred, not that he discussed them directly. It’s quite possible Trump may not even know that level of detail.

That part is a classic non-denial denial.

But McMaster adds at the top: “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”

The “as reported” is a hedge. But more fundamentally saying “the story” is false can mean anything. He doubles down later. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” But again, what didn’t happen? The only reason I can think of to be totalizing in general and lawyerly and non-denailing in the specifics is that you’re trying to deny something that actually did happen.

Even though I think these statements are far more general than they may seem, it’s just as true that McMaster is putting his credibility on the line for Trump.

If the circumstances were different, this might give me some pause about the story. But the Post and the Times just have infinitely more credibility than the Trump White House at this point. [emphasis mine] What’s more, there are details about giving ‘heads up’ calls to the NSA and CIA. Assuming those calls were made, that certainly strongly suggests something serious went wrong.

3) Somewhat similar point in a tweet:

Also, this:

4) Paging Paul Ryan:

5) Fox News– state media:

6) Speaking of Hillary:

7) The Lawfare team with an important take.  Among other things, they also note how lawyerly McMaster’s denial was.  Also, this  (emphases in original):

First, this is not a question of “leaking classified information” or breaking a criminal law. Let’s dispense with one easy rabbit hole that a lot of people are likely to go down this evening: the President did not “leak” classified information in violation of law. He is allowed to do what he did. If anyone other than the President disclosed codeword intelligence to the Russians in such fashion, he’d likely be facing a long prison term. But Nixon’s infamous comment that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” is actually true about some things. Classified information is one of them. The nature of the system is that the President gets to disclose what he wants…

Fifth, this may well be a violation of the President’s oath of office. Questions of criminality aside, we turn to the far more significant issues: If the President gave this information away through carelessness or neglect, he has arguably breached his oath of office. As Quinta and Ben have elaborated on in some detail, in taking the oath President Trump swore to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability. It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of President.

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here

Finally, Trump’s alleged screw-up with the Russians reveals yet again what we have learned many times in the last four months: The successful operation of our government assumes a minimally competent Chief Executive that we now lack.Everyone else in the Executive Branch can be disciplined or fired or worse when they screw up by, say, revealing classified information or lying about some important public policy issue. But the President cannot be fired; we are stuck with him for 3-1/2 more years unless he is impeached, which remains a long-shot.

8) Just a couple more related tweets I loved.  Especially the last one.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Classified intel to the Russians

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    The bull in the china shop President stumbles again. He is in pursuit of a legacy of heroically bringing peace to the world when no one else can do it. Only he has a gut sensitive enough to tell him that playing nice and sharing with Russia will bring them into an alliance with the U.S. so strong that no other power can stop us from putting the world in order.
    Dream on, Mr. President, while the world trembles.

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