So, it’s been a week of appallingly bad, disturbing and just plain embarrassing optics from the White House. The dust had barely settled from the whole Comey firing affair, where Trump (1) fired they guy who is in charge of the Russia investigation that also includes him and his campaign principals (2) put out a bogus initial cover story saying that the firing was at the recommendation of his Deputy AG, and that it was over the handling of the Clinton email investigation (3) walks that back himself, saying it was his idea and that he had the Russia investigation specifically in mind when he fired Comey. That, of course, drew all kinds of instant comparisons to the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” where Nixon similarly fired the guy investigating him. Then Trump lends further credence to the comparison by issuing a veiled threat to Comey implying there are “tapes” (the same quotes he used for the “wiretap” allegations against Obama), completely ignoring the first rule of holes: when you’re in one, you stop digging.
The optics of all of that are just plain disturbing, and certainly can be read as a sign of guilt on Trump’s part. Of course, nobody is denying that a president can fire an FBI chief. But it’s just not done as a matter of course. The position is one that’s supposed to be above politics.
With that controversy still raging, Trump managed to step in another pile of crap as nobody seems to be able to do quite so well and utterly haplessly as he can. On May 10, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office. American press outlets were banned from the meeting, but Russian news media was allowed in. Kislyak, if you recall, is the same individual whom Michael Flynn discussed potentially lifting Russian sanctions with, and who met with Carter Page at the Republican National Convention. He also met with Jeff Sessions, in an interaction that the Attorney General basically lied about at his confirmation hearing.
In the wake of that meeting, one of those present – which was limited to a small group of people close to Trump – leaked the fact that the president had disclosed highly classified information to the Russians. The Washington Post on May 15 reported that Trump had betrayed the confidence of a highly secretive intelligence-sharing arrangement and jeopardized an intelligence source by disclosing details of an unfolding ISIS plot to Lavrov and Kislyak in the May 10 visit.
First, the White House trotted out H.R. McMaster to justify the inexplicable gaffe, which seemed more calculated to “impress the Russians” than achieve a legitimate foreign policy goal. McMaster asserted that sources, methods or military operations were not disclosed to the Russian delegation, and that Trump only discussed mutual concerns about terrorist threats.
Later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement that largely mirrored what McMaster had told the Post, but allowed that Trump had in fact discussed specific threats in the Oval Office meeting.
Later that day, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell scrambled the White House playbook, saying bluntly that the Washington Post’s reporting was false. “This story is false,” Powell said. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”
Appearing in front of the White House to read a prepared statement, McMaster then adopted the new position on false reporting. He also called into question the validity of the anonymous sourcing that formed the basis of the reporting, adding that firsthand accounts of those present in the meeting should outweigh anonymous sources.
“The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” McMaster said. “Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of the state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” McMaster added.
While the White House tried to calibrate its messaging, the Washington Post defended its reporting, accusing the White House of “playing word games” to blunt the impact of its reporting, and saying Trump’s disclosures had the potential to be “reverse-engineered” to figure out sources or methods. It also noted that no member of the administration had denied that Trump had shared classified information with Russia, the essence of the Post report.
The following day, Trump defended the move as within his executive power, saying he has the right to share with the Russians “facts” concerning terrorism. “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Later on May 16, McMaster appeared to echo Trump’s position, repeatedly emphasizing at a White House briefing Trump’s conduct was “wholly appropriate.” He also told reporters Trump “wasn’t even aware” of the source of the intelligence. Is that supposed to be reassuring?
As it turns out, the source of that intelligence, it is being reported, was Israel. The leak to Russia of this information potentially not only compromises its source, but also potentially complicates the US/Israel intelligence sharing relationship. Its disclosure to Russia potentially means that the intelligence will be passed on to Russia’s ally, Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel.
There has really never been such a bumbling nincompoop in the Oval Office. The depth of the incompetence is astounding. And you can be assured that there will be plenty of political malfeasance and malpractice to come from Trump, who is in way, way beyond his depth. He clearly doesn’t appreciate the sensitive nature of classified information and his entire absence of personal or professional discipline means he could blurt out anything, at any time. Except his damn tax returns, of course.
You know what would happen if Hillary Clinton was elected, and did the same thing. The entire Trump campaign was built on the possibility that she could have disclosed classified information. Here, we have Trump literally handing it over to a hostile power. And that’s OK? I defy any Republican to say it is without sounding like an utter hypocrite.