The FBI building in Washington. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Opinion writer

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” That was the conclusion that then-FBI director James B. Comey reached regarding Clinton’s home email server. Her conduct fell short of a criminal violation, according to Comey, but the FBI’s report soon became fodder for President Trump and his supporters. Their saner argument was that her demonstrated lack of care with the nation’s secrets disqualified her from office. The less sane version posited that she should be “locked up,” apparently without trial and without any finding that she committed a crime.

Fast forward to Wednesday. The New York Times reported:

When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.

Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.

Several aspects of this deserve emphasis.

First, unlike with the Clinton situation, we know the Chinese and Russian are hacking in — and using the information against the United States. Trump’s refusal to stop constitutes willful neglect of his duties as commander in chief.

Second, we have no idea what he’s sharing with friends, and we shouldn’t rely on his utter lack of interest (!) in classified briefings to reassure us that no harm is being done.

Third, Trump doesn’t have to be revealing secret sources of information to be putting national security at risk. Matters as mundane as the president’s location or his travel plans are classified. There is a universe of information that could harm the United States if obtained by our enemies. (“China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen — to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.”)

Former Navy intelligence official Malcolm Nance tells me that Trump’s “exposure on a personal, unauthorized non-secure communications device” is a “worse national security breach by far” than anything alleged against Clinton. Trump’s phone not only can transmit his location, Nance says, but also “classified information he may discuss.” “Revealing his true temper or mindset at any given time” is the kind of intelligence collection worth its “weight in gold.” Trump’s non-secure calls also give our enemies access to critical sources of espionage. “Trump’s communications with advisers, friends, family or even any mistresses can reveal embarrassing information that could lead to blackmail,” Nance stresses. “Most importantly the actual location of Donald Trump physically is in itself a closely held secret except for public events. … His devil-may-care attitude essentially puts a locator beacon on the president. So any secret meetings or private liaisons he wishes to hide are there for any foreign intelligence agency to see and exploit.”

Fourth, the story is noteworthy because aides are so frustrated that they feel compelled to go to the media. (“The officials said they were doing so not to undermine Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security,” the Times reported.) Trump’s stubborn refusal to accept pleadings of responsible advisers should dispel the notion that aides (like the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed) are successfully protecting the country from Trump. They’d do far more good for the country if they quit and testified publicly as to the ongoing threat to national security posed by Trump.

This would not be the only time Trump jeopardized national security. Recall that in the Oval Office he disclosed to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador highly classified information obtained from Israel. As Lawfare blog’s Ben Wittes remarked at the time: “The central governance issue is that American intelligence professionals put their lives on the line every day to protect information, to protect intelligence relationships with foreign services. And those foreign services give us information on the clear understanding that it will not be disclosed beyond the parameters of their permission.” He added that “when the president blithely gives away such information to a hostile foreign power — apparently without realizing he was doing it — the consequences of that to the intelligence collection apparatus of the United States are swift.”

In addition, in pushing the false narrative that a spy had been planted on his campaign, Trump and his cohorts in the House outed a confidential source. Trump’s willingness to see a source outed and to order (thankfully reversed) release of an array of classified information concerning the Russia probe (over the objections of the intelligence community), along with his sanctioning of a misleading cut-and-paste memo from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) revealing information in a warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, all demonstrate egregious lapses in judgment and a complete inability to fulfill the awesome responsibilities of his office.

Once more, we are confronted with the ugly reality that Republicans refuse to exercise any oversight or stand up to the president, even to implore him to protect vital national security interests. Unless and until a Democratic majority is in place in at least one house of Congress, Trump will not be checked. If and when Democrats win control of at least one House, they should immediately open an investigation into Trump’s reckless handling of our nation’s secrets. While the president might legally be entitled to declassify whatever he wants, his decision to do so at the expense of our national security is a breach of his oath of office and the quintessential abuse of power for which impeachment is the only remedy.

Read more:

James Downie: The White House spin on Trump’s phone is probably true. That should scare us.

Karen Tumulty: Democracy is badly in need of adult supervision

Paul Waldman: Trump is letting adversaries listen to his calls. You’d think Republicans would care.