This reads like a broad satire of what Trump skeptics were worried about when he first started getting intelligence briefings. Sitting around with the Russians, shootin’ his mouth off about what he knows about ISIS and how he has really great intelligence, the best intelligence, while they sit there taking notes and side-eyeing each other.
At least he hasn’t revealed anything top secret in an interview or at a rally. Yet.
“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”…
It was during that meeting [with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador], officials said, that Trump went off script and began describing details about an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft…
In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump seemed to be boasting about his inside knowledge of the looming threat. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” Trump said, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.
Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States only learned through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence gathering method, but described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat…
The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved.
No excerpt can do the full story justice, right down to details about Trump sometimes ignoring the short summaries his briefers prepare for him before he talks to foreign leaders. (“Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not?” wondered one former intel official. “That’s what worries me.”) Trump fans on Twitter are pointing to a quote in the piece from H.R. McMaster that seems at first blush to deny the story, but doesn’t really: “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” Right, but WaPo didn’t claim that Trump had revealed sources. They claimed that he had revealed a key detail about location that Russian intelligence could use to try to figure out how the U.S. partner who detected the ISIS aviation threat knows what it knows. McMaster’s statement sounds like a non-denial denial. “Russia could identify our sources or techniques” based on the information Trump gave them, said one senior U.S. official.
Democrats have taken to retweeting these old bon mots from last July, after Comey’s press conference about Hillary’s email carelessness:
Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team "were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information." Not fit!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2016
It's simple: Individuals who are ‘extremely careless’ w/ classified info should be denied further access to it. https://t.co/XWuvfDugly
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) July 7, 2016
This would be a big big big deal legally for literally anyone else in government, but because the president has the power to declassify classified information, he can blab all he wants to the Russians with impunity. In any case, Washington’s now about to have a super-charged version of the debate it spent last week having over Comey’s firing: Was Trump merely incompetent in how he handled this, as damaging as that incompetence may be, or, in the inevitable Democratic telling, did he pass the information to the Russians deliberately, because he’s colluding with them?
Two U.S. officials told BuzzFeed after WaPo’s story dropped that it’s true and “it’s far worse than what has already been reported.” Reportedly the Senate Intelligence Committee has been briefed about it. Exit question one: Hey, remember this story from January? Exit question two via David Frum: If you’re a U.S. natsec professional, how do you prevent this from happening again? Start withholding information from the president? There’s no way to stop him from blurting out classified info in the course of conversation once the conversation’s begun. The only way is to keep it from him in the first place. Although the fact that this incredibly embarrassing mishap has been leaked may be their way of trying to shame Trump into preparing more diligently for meetings going forward and being far more careful about what he says. (Especially since he’s leaving on his first foreign trip as president soon.) In the end, maybe the only way to get through to him is with bad press.
Update: Tillerson’s issuing the same sort of non-denial denial as McMaster. Again, the charge is that Trump revealed a detail about location that would let the Russians figure out how a U.S. ally was getting its information on ISIS. He didn’t reveal who the source was or how that info was obtained and WaPo isn’t claiming that he did. But what he did was bad enough.
Just now: SecState Tillerson says POTUS did not discuss "sources, methods or military operations". pic.twitter.com/0OeRSG0OjP
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) May 15, 2017
Update: Now here’s a straightforward denial:
"The story that came out tonight is false," NSA Director McMaster says tonight. "I was in the room it didn't happen." pic.twitter.com/tKmh2WPPBn
— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) May 15, 2017
No parsing there. If BuzzFeed’s sources are right, it should be easy enough to resolve this: Someone needs to find someone on the Senate Intel Committee willing to talk. Supposedly they’ve been briefed on what Trump allegedly said to the Russians. Were they, though?
Update: Here’s McMaster’s statement calling the story false. He’s still emphasizing disclosing “sources and methods,” though, which WaPo didn’t accuse Trump of. They accused him of sharing “highly classified information.” Also, why not take questions from the press?
McMaster: "The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false" pic.twitter.com/0GXKxNqmHH
— POLITICO (@politico) May 15, 2017