“I understand you have another topic,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster joked with reporters at the beginning of his previously scheduled presser. The White House had already slated a briefing today to offer details on Donald Trump’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the Vatican. The biggest news from that part of the briefing was the confirmation that Trump would be the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, although it remains a private visit.
That’s not the news that the White House press corps wanted to discuss, however. Give McMaster credit for taking questions this time. And the very first question was on the Washington Post report, which McMaster still insists was false … in terms of whether or not the conversation was “appropriate”:
McMaster on report that Trump shared classified information with Russians: “The premise of that article is false” https://t.co/Vlxou15scL
— NBC News (@NBCNews) May 16, 2017
The bigger issue, McMaster declared, is the leaks that threaten national security:
McMaster: "Our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality and those releasing information to the press." pic.twitter.com/JOi6wRZLfC
— ABC News (@ABC) May 16, 2017
McMaster later insisted that the sharing was “wholly appropriate” for “common action,” which … isn’t a denial about the classified nature of the information. He refused a number of opportunities to deny the information was classified, and said that the location of the city involved was not a big deal in terms of protecting sources and methods.
McMaster: "It was nothing that you would not know from open source reporting" on city Trump told Russian foreign minister was ISIS threat pic.twitter.com/akHBnsv7Wc
— ABC News (@ABC) May 16, 2017
The problem with the Washington Post report was that it combined a leak with other speculation, according to McMaster, which is what made the overall thrust of the report false. Perhaps that’s true, but then … why did the national security team have to brief CIA leadership on the disclosure? Also, McMaster claimed that Trump had not been briefed on the source of the information he disclosed, which seems like another reason to question his judgment:
McMaster: "I'll add one more thing: the president wasn't even aware of the source of the information. He was never briefed on it."
— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) May 16, 2017
Eli Lake had broken that story an hour or so before the presser. Shouldn’t Trump have checked on that point first before deciding to disclose it to the Russians? He certainly has the authority to make disclosures on classified information as he sees fit, but whether Trump exercised good judgment is another question entirely. Disclosing intel without knowing its source does not show good judgment at all, for the same reasons raised in the initial report — it might not be something the source wanted shared with the Russians, and may not even be worth disclosing.
The immediate impact of this presser, however, will still stanch the bleeding from the White House. McMaster’s emphatic defense of Trump demonstrated more skill than the comms team has managed to show over the last seven days, and it’s enough for Trump’s supporters to declare this a non-story. How long will that last? It depends on whether Trump takes to Twitter again on this topic, or wisely declines to address it again unless directly asked.
McMaster might have left one last issue unresolved, however. “No Israeli leaders will accompany the president to the Western Wall,” McMaster said, but he pointedly avoided answering whether the Trump administration considers the temple mount part of Israel. Expect that to become an issue in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem when Trump visits both next week.
Update: This tends to indicate that there remains reason for concern:
BREAKING: AP Source: CIA director to brief House intel committee Tuesday on Trump sharing classified information with Russians.
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 16, 2017
This meeting with Pompeo was already scheduled a few weeks back, but the agenda has changed. The leaks from this should be awesome.