The nation’s secrets belong to the president.
As The Washington Post acknowledged when it reported that the president had passed highly classified information to the Russians last week, the president has “broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.”
Put another way, in strictly legal terms, the president can more or less do what he likes with classified information, because that information is classified at his pleasure.
What the president did—if the reporting by two of the Post’s most experienced and well-sourced journalists is to be believed, and the denial that emerged from the mouth of the president’s national security advisor was a very weak one—is problematic on other levels.
The first and most important reason why what the president did is dangerous is what it does to our relationship with our intelligence partners. The Post reports that the intelligence the president shared was provided by another partner—likely the intelligence service of another country. Countries provide that information to the United States trusting we will not divulge that information to, say, the Russians.
During the Obama administration, we briefly considered sharing some counter-terror intelligence with the Russians as well, all as part of a broader effort to counter the Nusra Front in Syria while kick-starting the political process to remove Bashar al-Asad from power. It was a noble if misguided effort, and the intelligence community and the Department of Defense—for whom I was the lead negotiator—argued strenuously against it, in part because we feared the Russians would use the opportunity to collect their own intelligence on our sources and methods, many of which we developed over decades to … spy on Russia.