The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3 big takeaways from Trump’s Russia-classified info blunder

In a May 10, 2017 meeting, President Trump spoke to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak about a terror threat. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry/The Washington Post)
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The White House is dealing with its second crisis in one week, now that President Trump has basically confirmed that he shared highly classified information with Russia.

As we move forward and the White House seeks to explain itself, here are three key takeaways.

1) The White House is treading water badly — and the problem is largely Trump himself

Chaos has long reigned in the White House. And never has that been truer than in the past week.

The White House badly mismanaged the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and the explanations that followed. It offered polar-opposite versions of both the motive (first it was Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation; then Trump admitted that the Russia probe was on his mind) and how the decision was made (first it was the Justice Department's call; then Trump said he had made up his mind to fire Comey regardless).

We see a strikingly similar script this week, with top national security aides saying Monday night that The Washington Post's reporting was wrong, and then Trump tacitly acknowledging it was accurate first thing Tuesday morning.

The common thread here is clear: No matter how much planning goes into the White House's actions and messaging — and I'm not sure there's a ton of it, to be honest — Trump is liable to blow it up at a moment's notice.

Trump is reportedly considering a staff shake-up to address the White House's current problems but is a different cast of characters really going to be able to change things? Trump first got them into these messes by firing Comey in a questionable manner, and then, the very next day, sharing classified information with none other than Russia. He then compounded those mistakes by contradicting his own staff in both cases.

What really needs changing is Trump's tendency to fly off the handle and then contradict his staff. And the only staff that are going to be successful with him are the ones who can actually rein him in and convince him that he needs to listen to someone not named Donald Trump. I'm not sure those people exist.

2) There is no good defense for what Trump did

Trump's defense of what he did Tuesday morning seemed to boil down to this: The president has broad authority to share such information.

And this is true. Trump very likely didn't break the law. But this is also a red herring.

Even in the story Monday, The Post's Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe acknowledged that Trump probably didn't break any laws. The reason this is a big deal to the intelligence community sources they spoke to is because it risks jeopardizing a key tool in the fight against the Islamic State by tipping Russia off to this information. By discussing a specific Islamic State plot and the city in which it was detected, the officials say, it's quite possible Russia could surmise the source and methods used to collect that information.

In addition to aiding an adversarial foreign power like Russia and potentially jeopardizing a key source, it could also give other allies cold feet about working with the U.S. government, for fear that their identities won't be closely safeguarded by the president and his administration.

According to the Associated Press, there is evidence this might already be happening:

3) The impeachment push will grow, almost definitely in vain

A couple of House Democrats have now called for Trump's impeachment — Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Al Green (Tex.) — and a number of others are talking openly about the possibility, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and the former front-runner for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship, Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.).

(CNN's K-File has the growing list Democrats who have invoked the i-word.)

Democratic leaders will certainly be wary of all this, given that Republicans paid a price in the late 1990s for their overzealous impeachment of Bill Clinton. And trying to impeach Trump while in the minority is almost definitely a fool's errand. But the big question here is whether they can hold off their base's growing demand for it.

A new survey from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling released Tuesday, in fact, showed that 48 percent of registered voters in North Carolina support bringing impeachment proceedings against Trump, vs. 41 percent who opposed it. Three-fourths of Democrats (75 percent) were in favor.

As The Post's Philip Bump noted on Twitter, there is reason to believe these numbers overshoot actual support for impeachment — specifically the fact that the poll shows 12 percent of Trump voters support impeachment — but it's clear that there is a healthy amount of momentum behind impeachment on the left.

We saw during the Supreme Court debate what that pressure from the base can do. Democrats were essentially forced into a symbolic filibuster against Neil M. Gorsuch that they knew would just lead Republicans to nuke the filibuster for SCOTUS nominations. And now they don't have the filibuster for future, more consequential fights.

Sharing classified information with Russia that risks jeopardizing a key tool in the fight against the Islamic State would seem to be a uniquely galvanizing event for the pro-impeachment crowd.

And the Lawfare blog recapped the legal case for it late Monday, pointing to the Presidential Oath of Office. This is a lot of info, but it's well worth a read:

If the President gave this information away through carelessness or neglect, he has arguably breached his oath of office. As Quinta and Ben have elaborated on in some detail, in taking the oath President Trump swore to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability. It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of President.
Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law — just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.
Congress has alleged oath violations — albeit violations tied to criminal allegations or breaches of statutory obligations — all three times it has passed or considered seriously articles of impeachment against presidents: against Andrew Johnson (“unmindful of the high duties of his oath of office”), Richard Nixon (“contrary to his oath”), and Bill Clinton (“in violation of his constitutional oath”). Further, two of the three articles of impeachment against Nixon alleged no direct violation of the law. Instead, they concerned Nixon’s abuse of his power as President, which, like the President putting the nuclear codes on Twitter, is an offense that can only be committed by the President and has thus never been explicitly prohibited in criminal law.
There’s thus no reason why Congress couldn’t consider a grotesque violation of the President’s oath as a stand-alone basis for impeachment — a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself. This is particularly plausible in a case like this, where the oath violation involves giving sensitive information to an adversary foreign power. That’s getting relatively close to the “treason” language in the impeachment clauses; it’s pretty easy to imagine a hybrid impeachment article alleging a violation of the oath in service of a hostile foreign power. So legally speaking, the matter could be very grave for Trump even though there is no criminal exposure.

It's not hard to imagine Democrats reading that and getting very enthused about impeachment.