The news that Donald Trump reportedly shared sensitive classified information with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week produced four major reactions.
There were some who refused to believe the Washington Post scoop, even though the White House still has not specifically denied that the president shared classified info, despite carefully parsed denunciations of the story, and despite confirmation by multiple outlets. There were others who dismissed the scoop, pointing out that Trump has the authority to unilaterally declassify information—an argument that is true as far as it goes, but ignores the real-world of implications of sharing such info on relations with allies, to say nothing of its hypocrisy.
Among those who treated the news as a dangerous development, there was a different split. For people who are convinced that Trump is part of a grand conspiracy with Russia to interfere with American politics, or those who believe that might be true, his decision to share such top-secret information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. offered further validation of their suspicions.
But in their rush to defend Trump from these dark intimations, some of his defenders offered an account of his actions that may be even more disturbing. Regardless of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia—a question the FBI and others are investigating—early indications were that Trump’s disclosure to the Russians was not a calculated choice but rather an unintentional error. A president who has little understanding of what is classified or why it matters, blurting privileged information willy-nilly, is a dangerous prospect.
In the Post story, Trump appeared to have divulged the information while boasting of the information he receives: “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.”
Politico quoted an adviser “who often speaks to the president” speculating that Trump had indeed said what he said to impress his guests.
“He doesn't really know any boundaries. He doesn't think in those terms,” the source said. “He doesn't sometimes realize the implications of what he's saying. I don't think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn't want to do that.”
A former FBI official told The Daily Beast, “I don’t think he shared the classified intelligence to collude. I think he shared because he thinks he’s playing chess when he’s actually playing checkers. International affairs is not like buying a golf course.”
These apologies argue that the president is not a Russian plant. But they also make the case that Trump is simply not up to the job of being president: He is in over his head, unprepared, and not learning fast enough to avoid endangering American national security.
Deepening the problem, it’s not clear that Trump even understands the gravity of the error. That’s somewhat surprising, given that he went as far during the presidential campaign as to call for Edward Snowden to be executed for “giv[ing] serious information to Russia.”
Immediately after the Post story, the administration tried to push back on it. National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, the White House official who has the greatest credibility of any Trump aide, made a brief statement to reporters. He said:
The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of 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.
It didn’t take long to stress-test the putative denial and see what it didn’t say. The caveat “as reported” left McMaster space to quibble with the details of the story without contradicting the big picture. Meanwhile, his statement that Trump never discussed sources or methods or unknown military operations was beside the point, since the Post hadn’t said he did. McMaster was denying a story that didn’t exist. Post reporter Greg Miller went on CNN, where he accused the White House of “playing word games.” It’s notable that the Post said it was withholding sensitive information—which would require sensitive information to have been in play—and that the White House still has not specifically denied that Trump shared classified information.
The president then fired off a series of tweets Tuesday morning that, while not directly contradicting the denials of his dutiful aides, cast serious doubt on them:
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
Note the implication of the first tweet: Trump is saying he did share some information with the Russians. A White House spokesman was quick to insist that Trump’s tweet did not concede sharing classified information—which is true in strict literalist terms. But if the information were not sensitive, why is it that Trump was so eager to assert his “absolute right” to do so?
The president is, at this point, playing constant defense. His recourse to asserting his right to share classified information is a short-term excuse that misses the broader picture of how doing so could damage American intelligence gathering and relationships with allies going forward. (Trump continues to be rolled by quasi-adversaries like Russia, even as he has icy relations with close U.S. friends.)
The backlash has already begun. In Germany, which clashed with the Obama administration over U.S. surveillance of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a lawmaker expressed concern to the Associated Press, while another European official told the AP that Trump’s loose talk could lead their country to stop sharing intelligence with American agencies. Monday night, one U.S. official told BuzzFeed, “It’s far worse than what has already been reported.” Does Trump understand any of that?