10 Lessons of Trump's Meeting With the Russians

The president’s reported disclosure of highly classified information raises a series of unnerving questions.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A few thoughts on the stunning report Tuesday night by The Washington Post about President Trump’s meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office earlier this week:

1. It always seems to come back to Russia with President Trump. He refused to accept the intelligence community's unanimous opinion that Russia was responsible for hacking the DNC and Democratic operatives (and later that it did so to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton). He denied his campaign had contact with Russia. He won't ever really criticize Vladimir Putin. And he justified firing his FBI director by admitting he was concerned about the investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia.

Now this: The disclosure that the day after he fired former FBI Director James Comey, after posing for chummy photos in the Oval Office, Trump revealed to Russian officials information classified at the highest level, and that was provided to the United States by an ally on the condition that it not be broadly distributed.

2. What the president reportedly disclosed to the Russian officials sounds serious enough to terminate a normal official’s security clearance, end their career or even result in criminal prosecution. When I worked at the State Department, there was an incident in which a document classified “secret” (not nearly as sensitive as the information at issue here) was left on an unclassified copy machine, in an overseas hotel, during an official visit—but in an area guarded by U.S. agents.

Our security people launched an extensive investigation, including interviewing all staff with access to the area. Government officials with top secret clearances can get security violations for exchanging information classified as "confidential" (the lowest level) on the unclassified email system. Such relatively minor transgressions become part of personnel files and can inhibit promotions or the ability to get another national security job.

3. That administration officials went to the press suggests that they believe they have no recourse to curb this disturbing behavior short of such a drastic step. You'd have to assume these officials (who must be uncomfortably close to the president to receive a readout of such a small meeting) are at the end of their ropes—in other words, that this may not have been Trump's “first offense.” Otherwise, you would assume someone close to the him—someone whom he listens to; someone who can tell him hard truths—could have explained the severity of the problem to ensure it doesn't happen again.

4. Then again, it seems increasingly clear there is no such “someone” in the administration who can correct the president’s worst instincts. No one who can tell Trump it might be a bad idea to go on television and completely contradict his team's elaborate explanation for why he fired Comey. Or who can tell him he was wrong to claim a U.S. “armada” was headed toward North Korea, even as they correct the record to reporters on background. Perhaps the inability to have difficult conversations with the president is why we keep reading that his own staff communicates with him in … unorthodox ways, like through television appearances or by asking a foreign head of state (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the case of NAFTA) to raise arguments with the boss. These are the staffing equivalent of “SOS” messages in a bottle tossed over the White House fence.

5. Preventing this kind of thing from happening again will be a major challenge. If you're National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, whose job it is to prepare the president for foreign meetings, your options are bleak. You can keep highly sensitive material out of the president’s briefing papers, but it's not clear he even reads them—and they were unlikely to be the source of the information he disclosed to the Russians. If you're the director of national intelligence, who has overall responsibility for maintaining the integrity of classified information, you could stop sending such sensitive material in the President’s Daily Brief. But that is hard to imagine, since the president is considered the primary customer of the most important intelligence our country obtains, and is also the ultimate decision-maker on all policy that relies on such intelligence.

It is not even clear who, other than the president, could authorize such a restriction, without infringing on clear presidential prerogatives.

6. Trump’s counterparts, friend and foe alike, have surely realized by now that any information they put in the president's head could come out of his mouth at the most inopportune time. In recent weeks, it became clear that the president is so impressionable that he will shift long-held views on a dime (like his about-face on NATO after seeing Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg) or regurgitate their self-serving claims (like “learning” from President Xi Jinping about China’s limited influence over North Korea ). Now our allies also have to worry that their most sensitive information could be shared with an adversary. Hard to imagine they will be as willing to share.

One other thing to keep in mind: Saying something like this to the Russians was bad; imagine if it had been on live television (which seems like only a matter of time).

7. Trump’s defenders may (rightly) claim that, especially for a new government official exposed to reams of unfamiliar information, keeping track of what is or is not classified is not always easy. And given genuine over-classification in the executive branch, it is not always self-evident what falls on each side of the line. Inadvertent are an occupational hazard—every official has had one of those heart-stopping moments when he or she, or a colleague, or a boss makes a comment they probably shouldn’t have.

That said, "code word" information Trump is alleged to have discussed is the most sensitive category that exists—the most vulnerable points of access to foreign information or acts our own government conducts. The cover paper on such reports bears the neon hues of a hazmat barrel and often comes wrapped in double layers of thick brown paper and heavy tape. It is inconceivable that anyone with access to such information would think it could be shared.

8. Mercifully, no administration official has yet complained that the real story here is not Trump’s disclosures but those made by the "deep state" to tarnish the president (though that is the line several right-wing outlets are taking). That said, while no one should envy the challenge his communications team faces, the statements coming from Team Trump so far are incredibly misleading. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, are denying things the president is not alleged to have disclosed (military operations, intelligence sources and methods), while remaining silent on the core allegation that he disclosed code-word information and they had to launch a massive damage control operation in response.

9. Taking a step back, it is increasingly clear that Trump’s wrecking ball approach to the traditional norms of the presidency, praised as “disruptive” by his supporters, is exposing the limitations of a political system ill-equipped to handle someone operating  so recklessly. There may be few legal restrictions on the president related to, for example, disclosing classified information, or ethical breaches, or interfering with a law enforcement investigation into the campaign that brought him to power, but there has always been a basic presumption that a president would operate within certain bounds of good faith.

With a Republican-led Congress so far unwilling to hold the administration to account and few remedies available, short of nuclear options (impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment), the system is largely left to discipline itself. That isn't working.

10. This incident is among the first, or at least most visible, costs of a person with this president's temperament occupying the Oval Office. Yet again, the administration is fighting a five-alarm fire of its own (and, as is often the case, of its president's) making.

It's been said and written frequently, but it bears repeating, that the day will come, sooner than anyone of us wants, when there will be a major external crisis for this administration to address. Anyone who isn't concerned about how that will play out isn't paying much attention.