President Trump, center, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during a meeting at the White House in Washington in May 2017. (Russian Foreign Ministry via AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Candidate Donald Trump used, more than any other issue, Hillary Clinton’s home email server to argue that she was unfit for office and, moreover, that there were grounds for sending her to jail. The eerie chants, more common in banana republics, to imprison his opponent (“Lock her up!”) would thrill his crowds and reignite the anti-Clinton anger that had gripped Republicans for decades. For less crazed voters, it was an effective reminder of the Clintons’s proclivity to break the rules, to disregard conflicts of interest and to only grudgingly come clean when caught misbehaving. Her offense, in retrospect, seems small and innocuous, in large part because Trump’s defiance of rules, indulgence in massive conflicts of interest and habitual lying in just one year in office dwarf anything (and everything) both Clintons have done in a lifetime in the public eye.

And that brings us to President Trump’s handling and mishandling of classified information. No president has more recklessly exposed the country’s secrets than this one.

Consider that he blabbed code-word intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office. According to national security expert Amy Zegart of Stanford University, “On a scale of 1 to 10—and I’m just ball parking here—it’s about a billion. … The president could have jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. Not America’s source. Somebody else’s. Presumably from an allied intelligence service who now knows that the American president cannot be trusted with sensitive information.”

Fast-forward to House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who cooked up a memo falsely accusing the FBI of omitting information on a warrant application to the FISA court to conduct surveillance on longtime suspected spy Carter Page. Nunes has stubbornly refused to say if he drafted the memo in concert with the White House, but his refusal to deny the accusation speaks volumes. The president, contrary to the pleading of FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, released the memo publicly, sending out to everyone on the planet a document originally labeled “top secret.” (Countless national security experts have explained that “top secret” is usually the designation of material whose release would expose sources and methods of intelligence gathering.) Trump, even before the so-called vetting process, told a lawmaker at the State of the Union address that he intended to release the memo. Keeping our nation’s secrets, as well as releasing his tax records, are hindrances to his self-protection. Therefore, top-secret classification (and personal financial transparency) be damned.

Then along comes the 10-page Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo. Now, Trump decides he cannot possibly release the document, at least not yet. Citing national security concerns (don’t laugh), he sent the memo back to the committee controlled by Republicans with instructions to make changes and redactions.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) declared via tweet, “Refusal to release Democratic response to [the] #NunesMemo [is] evidence of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump happening in real time.” The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), declared, “You know, the reality is we have wanted to work with the bureau and the DOJ on this from the beginning. We sent them our memo even before we took it up in committee. But it’s hard to avoid the hypocrisy here of a White House that is now sending this memo back to the same committee that produced the flawed Nunes … memo.” In short, national security has become an excuse to misrepresent events to the public, not a concern that should temper the president’s legal defense strategy. Classification and protection of the nation’s secrets now take a back seat to Trump’s efforts to derail an investigation into his alleged wrongdoing. This, I am confident, Clinton would never have dared try.

To top it all off, we now know that Trump is hiring people who cannot remotely be dubbed “the best,” meaning that a flock of people, including now-former staff secretary and accused spousal abuser Rob Porter and his son-in-law (who repeatedly left out information about his foreign contacts from security clearance paperwork) have operated without permanent security clearances. The Post reports:

Dozens of White House employees, including Kushner, are still waiting for permanent clearances and have been operating for months on a temporary status that allows them to handle sensitive information while the FBI probes their backgrounds, U.S. officials have said. Two U.S. officials said they do not expect Kushner to receive a permanent security clearance in the near future.

It is not uncommon for ­security-clearance investigations to drag on for months, but Kushner’s unique situation has cast a pall over the process in the minds of some, these people said.

The president’s son-in-law and close adviser has been allowed to see materials, including the President’s Daily Brief, that are among the most sensitive in government. He has been afforded that privilege even though he has only an interim clearance and is a focus in the ongoing special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the election.

How many of those aides, because of issues in their past — spousal abuse, for example — could be subjected to blackmail? Have untoward connections with a hostile power? We don’t know. (“Why Kushner, along with dozens of others, continues to lack a clearance remains unclear,” The Post reports. “For many, there could be innocuous reasons — for instance, that they are getting checked for the first time, or their extensive business and foreign ties take time to explore.”) In any event, rather than remove these people from their positions, the White House allows people who have not been properly cleared to see documents that contain the intelligence community’s most sensitive information. We can only imagine what candidate Trump would have said had Clinton allowed this to go on at the State Department.

The Clinton-Derangement-Syndrome Republicans, who have tied themselves up in knots decrying the FBI for somehow going easy on Clinton (it wasn’t enough to Bigfoot her campaign 11 days before the election?) and decreed that her cavalier attitude toward national security made her unfit for office, now turn a blind eye toward Trump’s misdeeds. This is par for the course for the Trump enablers in right-wing media and in Congress: Ignore and rationalize Trump’s misconduct that is worse than anything Clinton could have imagined so as to justify support for Trump. Someone as careless and dishonest as Clinton should never have been elected president! Instead, let’s back someone infinitely worse and give him a pass each and every time he endangers national security.

That’s the mentality of Trump’s true believers and even of Republicans who fancy themselves, after a year of Trump’s grotesque abuse of power and rabid racism, as reluctant Trump backers. For the sake of a few judges or corporate tax cuts, they’ll defend with their last breath a president willing to spill our nation’s secrets, to endanger America, to protect his own hide. I cannot think of a better argument for Democrats to claim the upper hand on national security and for the GOP to go out of business.