White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster just emerged from the White House to declare that The Washington Post’s story about Trump giving highly classified information to Russia “as reported, is false.”
But the rest of McMaster’s statement made clear he wasn’t actually denying the report. And his entire brief statement — punctuated by McMaster walking away without taking shouted questions — speaks volumes.
Here’s what McMaster said:
There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember it being the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.
McMaster says that “at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed.” But The Post’s reporting doesn’t say that they were.
Instead, the report states clearly only that Trump discussed an Islamic State plot and the city where the plot was detected by an intelligence-gathering partner. Officials worried that this information could lead to the discovery of the methods and sources involved, but it didn’t say Trump discussed them.
McMaster’s statement that “the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known” is in the same vein — suggesting The Post has reported something that it hasn’t in order to deny something. The Post doesn't refer to classified military actions that were previously unknown; it only says Trump mentioned military actions used to combat the classified threat he described:
Trump also described measures the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threat, including military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said.
At the end, McMaster refers to his own account and that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and says, “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” But again, he seems to be saying that the thing that didn’t happen is something The Post never actually reported.
At no point in his statement to The Post before the story went live or in his appearance in front of reporters afterward does McMaster say, ‘President Trump didn’t share classified information with Russia’ or anything close to it.
This is actually pretty par-for-course for the White House. When the media has reported based on anonymous sources in the intelligence community, the White House will often deny the reports without pointing to any specifics in the reporting.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer back in February denied an Associated Press report that said a Department of Homeland Security memo showed the administration considered deploying the National Guard to rein in illegal immigration. The White House apparently didn’t respond to requests for comment before the story went live. And we later found out that the memo was preliminary, but real.
Spicer issued a similar, “100 percent” denial a few weeks back when The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had sought to block fired former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying before Congress by arguing that her conversations with the president were privileged. But documents showed the administration had indeed asserted such privilege. It was simply rejected by Yates’s lawyer:
David O’Neil, an attorney for Yates, met at the Justice Department to discuss the issue with government officials on Thursday. At the meeting, O’Neil presented a letter in which he said the Justice Department had “advised” him that Yates’s official communications on issues of interest to the House panel are “client confidences” that cannot be disclosed without written consent. O’Neil challenged that interpretation as “overbroad” in the letter.
We’ll see if the White House actually wants to quibble with any specifics in The Post’s reporting. So far, they haven’t cited anything specific that’s false. And that’s pretty telling.