If there were two words the White House wanted you to take away from national security adviser H.R. McMaster's press briefing Tuesday, they were these: "wholly appropriate."
McMaster tempered his earlier denial of a Washington Post report that President Trump had shared highly classified information with Russia, arguing instead that its "premise" that Trump jeopardized a key intelligence source was false. He said no fewer than nine times that Trump's disclosure was "wholly appropriate."
And how do we know it was appropriate? Apparently the answer to that question is: because Trump said it.
Here was a telling little exchange spotted by The Fix's Callum Borchers:
QUESTION: General, when was the decision made to share that information with the Russians? Did the president spontaneously on the spot decide to give that information over, or was there an inter-agency process or some kind of formal decision-making process in advance of that meeting with the Russians last week?
MCMASTER: It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That's what he did.
Here's the thing: It's very likely that what Trump did in that meeting with Russia was legal — as The Post reported in its initial story Monday — but that's not the same as saying that it was appropriate or helpful or not damaging to national security. The president has broad authority to declassify information that he feels the need to share, but sharing this information willy nilly with adversarial foreign powers — including one with very different goals in Syria — would seem to raise obvious red flags.
The standard put forward by McMaster for what is not only legal but also appropriate means that basically anything the president might share is appropriate, simply by virtue of it coming from the president. He said it was appropriate to share "whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people."
To take this to a ridiculous extreme: If Trump decided to broadcast the nuclear codes live on Fox News, by McMaster's logic, as long as Trump deemed this necessary for national security purposes, it would be appropriate.
This is actually a pretty familiar defense from the White House, which has often maintained that the things Trump does within his presidential authority are inherently okay simply because they are within his authority.
During the debate over Trump's travel ban, the White House and Trump himself repeatedly argued that the courts had no right to question the president's executive actions when it came to national security. Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller even said this authority "will not be questioned" by anyone, including the media.
Whenever discussion turned to conflicts of interest between his business and the presidency, Trump would say that he couldn't have any conflicts of interest, simply by virtue of being president. There is truth to this, legally speaking, but again, that's only legally speaking. Practically speaking, conflicts are certainly possible and have cropped up repeatedly.
What the White House seems to be doing here is twofold: emphasizing that what Trump did was legal and within his rights — which is very likely true — and then conflating that with what is not detrimental.
But in doing so, McMaster's argument makes it sound like whatever the president does within his legal rights is also appropriate, which is a highly debatable proposition. It also doesn't really address the central premise of The Post's story, which is that this could jeopardize a valuable intelligence-gathering arrangement by tipping off the Russians and alienating allies. Already, the Associated Press is reporting that an ally in Europe has gotten cold feet about cooperating with the United States.
As we debate Trump's just-revealed disclosure, we would all do well to differentiate between what's legal and what's advisable. That includes the White House.