THE MORNING PLUM:
On Monday afternoon, The Post broke the bombshell news that President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in an Oval Office meeting last week. Multiple administration officials denied the broad contours of the story, albeit carefully. This morning, Trump suddenly materialized on Twitter and appeared to confirm that, yes, something like this did indeed happen:
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
Many have argued that, by confirming that he did share information with the Russians, Trump undercut his own staff’s damage control on this story. National security adviser H.R. McMaster had responded by claiming that the Post story was “false,” and asserting that “the president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” and that “at no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed.”
However, in one sense, Trump’s new tweets are not necessarily inconsistent with McMaster’s claims. Trump’s tweets don’t concede that he divulged highly classified information. The Post story reported that the information Trump shared had been furnished by a U.S. partner via a very sensitive intel-sharing arrangement; that the partner had not given permission for it to be shared; that the breach puts that partner’s cooperation at risk; and, of course, that the info is highly classified.
Trump’s tweets did not concede any of those points, just as McMaster didn’t. Indeed, on Tuesday an administration spokesman flatly denied that Trump’s tweets conceded that he exposed classified information.
But the problem is twofold. First, Trump did go farther than McMaster, in several key respects. By conceding that he “shared” information with Russia, and by suggesting that he had the “absolute right” to do this, Trump invites questions as to whether he might have been referring to classified information. After all, as was widely observed Monday, it is technically legal for the president to disclose or declassify such information, and Trump’s tweet may have been asserting the “absolute right” to do this. Why assert an “absolute right” if he didn’t do this?
Second, neither Trump’s nor McMaster’s response actually contested key aspects of the Post story, and now that Trump has flatly stated that he “shared” information with the Russians, this requires more clarification. The Post reported that Trump had revealed details of an Islamic State terrorist threat, including the city where the threat was detected; and that he had exposed “an intelligence stream that has provided critical insight into the Islamic State,” which “could hinder the United States’ and its allies’ ability to detect future threats.”
But McMaster claimed only that Trump had not disclosed specific sources, sidestepping the question of whether he’d disclosed information drawn from them, which could be compromising in its own right.
This distinction could matter. Here’s why: Trump’s tweets raise the possibility that Trump did not know that the information he was divulging was classified, or that their disclosure could have severe consequences. The Lawfare blog points out that Trump’s reason for allegedly disclosing the information really matters. Did Trump do it for some national security purpose, or did he do it out of pure carelessness? Trump’s tweets suggest it may have been both of these. He seems to assert that he had a reason for “sharing” said information with Russia, but also seems to hint (with the use of “absolute right”) that he may have disclosed classified info in doing so, without knowing it at the time. The New York Times account raises this possibility:
It was not clear whether Mr. Trump wittingly disclosed such highly classified information. He — and possibly other Americans in the room — may have not been aware of the sensitivity of what he was sharing. It was only after the meeting, when notes on the discussion were circulated among National Security Council officials, that it was flagged as too sensitive to be shared, even among many American officials, the former official said.
As Lawfare’s piece points out, if this was done through sheer carelessness, it’s a serious problem: “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.” Yet Trump has now clearly opened the door to this being a legitimate possibility. Which means demands for further clarification of what, precisely, happened in that meeting will intensify. As they should.
* PAUL RYAN ‘HOPES FOR’ AN EXPLANATION ON CLASSIFIED INFO: Here’s the reaction from Paul Ryan’s office to the news that Trump divulged highly classified info to Russians in the Oval Office:
We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.
Oh. He “hopes for” a full explanation. I’m sure the White House will get right on that.
* DEMOCRATS DEMAND AN EXPLANATION: In contrast to Ryan, Democrats are insisting on an explanation for the disclosure. Nancy Pelosi said: “Congress must be given a full briefing on the extent of the damage President Trump has done in compromising highly classified code-word intelligence to the Russians.”
And Chuck Schumer said: “The President owes the intelligence community, the American people, and Congress a full explanation.”
* TRUMP PREPARES FOR TRIP ABROAD: Trump is set to travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Rome to reaffirm alliances and broadcast a unity message to adherents of three leading world religions. The Post looks at some of the land mines ahead:
Anything could mar the trip, however, whether a verbal gaffe, breach of protocol or even wayward body language. Extensive preparation, said foreign policy experts, may be especially valuable for a leader such as Trump, whose temperament favors the cocoon of familiarity. He also can be visibly uncomfortable when ceding the spotlight to others, or when sitting through lengthy meetings in which other speakers have the floor — hallmarks of foreign summits.
Well, we all know that Trump has a great capacity for “extensive preparation,” so everything will be just fine.
* CONSERVATIVE SENATORS WANT TO NUKE OBAMACARE: Politico reports that Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz want Republicans to go nuclear on the Affordable Care Act, by using a simple-majority vote to gut not just its budget-related matters but also its regulations:
But as the Senate drafts its health care bill, Cruz and Paul are finding themselves on a virtual island. Many other Republicans interviewed by POLITICO say they have no interest in testing the Senate’s procedural bounds, arguing that doing so would undermine the institution and quickly lead to the end of the legislative filibuster.
This would require blowing up Senate rules, so Republicans may only be able to gut the Medicaid expansion, the subsidies and the mandate, leaving ACA regulations in place.
* WHY SOME REPUBLICANS DEFEND COMEY FIRING: Political science professor Jeffrey Lazarus determines that those House Republicans who are defending the firing of James Comey come from districts with the most conservative voters:
Republican members in the most staunchly conservative House districts are most likely to support Trump’s decision to fire Comey. GOP members representing blue or purple districts are more likely to vocally question the decision. Put simply, lawmakers are reacting to what they believe their voters want to hear.
Note that the unstated premise here is that conservative voters themselves can’t possibly be questioning the firing.
* WHY REPUBLICANS CONTINUE TO GIVE TRUMP A PASS: CNN reports that some Republicans say the tipping point may be near, but they’re still reluctant to break with him. Here’s why:
Almost no matter what Trump says or does, a significant chunk of the Republican base believes he is right and support him. Crossing that group, at least right now, is, still, a potentially perilous political endeavor.
Oh well. As long as Republicans are unwilling to anger GOP base voters, we won’t get any serious congressional oversight over a president they themselves say is out of control.