During the White House media briefing Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the administration’s handling of classified material.
Before he resigned last week, staff secretary Rob Porter was in charge of managing the flow of documents to and from President Trump. But, in part because of the spousal abuse allegations that led to his leaving that position, Porter never actually got the permanent security clearance he would need to be authorized to handle the top-level material with which a president deals. Dozens of other White House staff are in the same position.
NBC’s Kristen Welker asked Sanders whether the White House was actually ensuring the protection of that material if those without permanent clearance are allowed to handle highly classified documents.
Here’s the exchange, in full.
WELKER: Can you guarantee that you are protecting classified information when you have someone like Rob Porter who didn’t have a permanent security clearance who had access to classified information?
SANDERS: I think we’re taking every step we can to protect classified information. I mean, frankly, if you guys have such concern with classified information, there’s plenty of it that’s leaked out of the Hill, that’s leaked out of other communities well beyond the White House walls. If you guys have real concerns about leaking out classified information — look around this room. You guys are the ones that publish classified information and put national security at risk. That doesn’t come from this White House.
WELKER: Is this White House jeopardizing national security?
SANDERS: We take every precaution possible to protect classified information and certainly to protect national security. It’s the president’s number one priority, is protecting the citizens of this country. It’s why we spend every single day doing everything we can to do that. And I think if anyone is publishing or putting out publicly classified information it’s members of the press, not the White House.
So, uh, five things about that.
First, that analogy is flawed.
The media does indeed sometimes publish classified material when that material is newsworthy and almost always after the government has been allowed to weigh in on those elements of the material that might endanger national security. Administrations are generally frustrated by leaks and often claim (usually without justification) that innocent lives are put at risk when leaks occur.
Sanders’s response is a particularly weird example of whataboutism. If our classified material gets out, well, whatabout your releasing classified material? she seems to be saying. As though the media either has no space to be critical of the White House mishandling classified documents or, well, everybody’s doing it.
Neither of those is a good defense! If a friend asks you why there’s no password on your phone, it’s not a good defense of that practice to point out that your friend once texted you a picture they got that had been stolen from someone else’s phone. Especially if that photo, say, proved that the government was spying on American citizens.
Second, it’s not only Welker who is questioning whether Porter should have been handling classified material. William Antholis served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and wrote an article for Politico outlining the ways in which White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly may have put classified material at risk.
“In essence,” Antholis wrote, “Kelly either (a) allowed a key aide in the chain of information access to [Top Secret/Special Compartmentalized Information] without a clearance, (b) waived the process entirely or (c) created a system that worked around him.” Each of those options has ancillary problems for the administration.
Antholis, we will note, is not a member of the media and therefore, even if Sanders’s analogy to publishing classified material were apt, which it isn’t, her rebuttal does nothing to address his questions.
Third, this is a president who was elected specifically on criticisms of his opponent’s handling of classified material. Remember “lock her up”? Hillary Clinton was disparaged by Trump and his allies above all else because of their criticisms of her handling of material she received as secretary of state. Trump himself frequently inflated his descriptions of what Clinton had done to make her appear to be far more culpable for misbehavior than impartial observers — and law enforcement — believed her to be.
So one would think that the Trump White House would be more concerned about maintaining proper document-handling procedures, not to wave away questions with a no leak, no leak, you’re the leakers rejoinder to the media.
Fourth, this is also a White House that we know already leaked classified material apparently by accident.
The day after he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Trump welcomed the Russian ambassador and foreign minister to a meeting in the Oval Office (at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request). During that meeting Trump revealed highly classified information about an Israeli operation in Syria, seemingly unwittingly.
In other words, asking whether the White House is at this point properly handling classified material is particularly salient because we know it has been an issue in the past.
Bear in mind, the question for Sanders wasn’t specifically about whether documents might wind up in the hands of the media. The question was broadly about the handling of that material, since it could end up in any number of places beyond the hands of The Washington Post. In the past, people have been denied security clearances out of concern that they might be compromised by foreign powers. If a foreign government found out about the accusations being made by Porter’s wives and he didn’t want that information to get out, he might be subject to blackmail. Those are the sorts of concerns that Sanders didn’t address.
Fifth, Sanders’s protestations about how the media endangers national security echo a bit hollow coming on the heels of the White House releasing a memo this month that the Justice Department worried would compromise national security by revealing sources and methods for intelligence gathering. That memo was deliberately cleared for public release despite the direct objections of the FBI, in large part because Trump saw it as exculpatory. But the point remains: Chastising the media for releasing classified information after releasing information that your own administration worries endangers security takes some chutzpah.
Beyond those five things, though? Solid response, I guess.