Hubris and rank amateurism are killing President Trump when it comes to his Russia problem. And that’s the most charitable explanation.
First, Trump made the very questionable decision to meet with top Russian officials a day after making the very questionable decision to fire the man leading the FBI's Russia investigation, James B. Comey. And now The Washington Post is reporting that, in that very same meeting, Trump shared highly classified information about the Islamic State with the Russians.
This is information that current and former U.S. officials say could jeopardize a valuable source of intelligence in the fight against ISIS and give an adversarial Russia a strategic advantage in Syria, where its goals are different from ours. If there is something worse Trump could have done in that meeting, I'm not sure what it would be.
The details of what exactly Trump discussed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Wednesday are sketchy, and The Washington Post is withholding some of them for national security reasons. But according to the officials, Trump relayed information from an intelligence-sharing arrangement that is so sensitive that some details aren't even shared with U.S. allies or broadly within the U.S. government. Trump cited the specifics of an ISIS plot and, most problematically, named the city in the Islamic State's territory where the U.S.' partner detected the threat.
Needless to say, sharing information with the Russian government that isn’t even being shared with allies is a big blunder. Trump has broad authority to declassify information, so he was probably within his rights to talk about it. But this is something that can credibly be described as Trump doing damage to the fight against the Islamic State with his loose lips.
The officials The Post spoke with are clearly exasperated. Here’s a sampling of their reactions:
- “Trump seems to be very reckless, and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security.” — a former senior U.S. official close to current administration officials
- “Russia could identify our sources or techniques.” — a senior U.S. official
- “I don’t think that it would be that hard [for Russian spy services] to figure this out.” — a former intelligence official who worked on Russia-related issues
- “He seems to get in the room or on the phone and just goes with it — and that has big downsides. Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not? That’s what worries me.” — a former U.S. official
Given how unusual a politician Trump is and how shocked most of us were that he was elected president, we’re always in a constant search for alternate explanations for the off-kilter things he does. Maybe the tweets work! Maybe his offensive comments were calculated! Maybe he's just trying to distract us! Maybe he’s really a secret political genius, despite his 36 percent approval rating!
But the Comey firing last week, its badly bungled aftermath and now Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information to Russia in the Oval Office paint a pretty clear picture. This is a president who shoots from the hip. Sometimes he shoots from the hip and hits the target, but it's also causing him major, major problems now that he’s President Trump and not Candidate Trump. It's one thing to say something offensive during the New Hampshire primary; it's quite another to jeopardize tools for fighting terrorism because you speak before you think.
Conspiracy theorists who are fond of the claims in that dossier will believe that this is Trump deliberately feeding valuable information to his buddies in Russia as payback for their help in the 2016 election. But sharing it out in the open during a meeting with other national security officials in the room would seem to be a very curious move. As The Post report notes, Trump's flub was quickly recognized and the damage control began almost immediately.
On a much more basic level, this appears to be Trump being careless and completely unaware of how the things he’s saying may create problems — both perception problems for himself, and real-world problems for the fight against terrorism. He lets his hubris get the better of him and starts bragging about the power and information at his fingertips — just like he did at Mar-a-Lago back in February. “I get great intel,” Trump reportedly told the Russians on Wednesday. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.”
Trump badly miscalculated the public reaction to his firing of Comey and bungled the explanations; then he went ahead with the Russia meeting anyway; then he did something in that Russia meeting that is only going to feed the narratives that he's (a) in the tank for Moscow and/or (b) totally in over his head as president in ways that are dangerous.
It's a series of tightly packed-together errors that can only be accomplished with an extraordinary amount of ego and a lack of a better angel.