The best part is the “is this really happening?” grin on Netanyahu’s face.
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) May 22, 2017
“They’re all saying” I named Israel in my Oval Office meeting with the Russians about ISIS, Trump says, referring to the media, but I didn’t. “So you had another story wrong.” But … the media didn’t accuse him of mentioning Israel in his chat with Lavrov and Kislyak. On the contrary. Here’s what he was accused of:
Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he 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. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it.
Trump didn’t identify the U.S. ally that had gathered the intelligence on the laptop threat and WaPo never claimed that he did. The big giveaway, supposedly, was the location of the asset, which may have been enough of a clue to Russia to help them figure out independently who the ally was. Other media reports did later name Israel as the ally but none to my knowledge claimed that Trump had given that away to the Russians. He’s rebutting a charge that hasn’t been made. Why he’d want to call attention to this humiliating episode in the first place during a goodwill visit to Israel, lord only knows. Hence Netanyahu’s facial expressions.
Someone on Twitter this morning claimed that, ironically, Trump can be read here as admitting that Israel was the ally who provided the intelligence and that he was careful not to identify them when chatting with Lavrov and Kislyak. Eh, I’m not so sure. A theory has been floating around for a week or so that Israel’s role in the ISIS operation is a smokescreen: It wasn’t Israel that provided the key laptop-bomb intelligence, the theory goes, it was Jordan. Jordan wouldn’t want that publicized, though, or else they’d be seen as having betrayed Sunni jihadis who are locked in a death struggle in Syria with Iran and the Shiites. So the White House, Jordan, and Israel collectively and quietly agreed that the Israelis should be named as the source of intel instead. There was a bit of circumstantial evidence to support that theory when Trump phoned Jordan’s King Abdullah the morning after the WaPo story about his chat with the Russians broke. Now here’s some more via Al Jazeera:
Intelligence on an ISIL airliner bomb plot given by US President Donald Trump to Russian officials originated in part with Jordanian spies, not Israelis,veteran Jordanian intelligence officials told Al Jazeera…
“When it comes to ISIL, unlike Jordan, Israel relies on its electronic surveillance collection and its intelligence sharing-arrangement with its Arab partners,” one source said.
Jordan, however, relies on human intelligence – spies on the ground who infiltrate armed groups. Jordanian intelligence has assets inside several fighting groups in Syria and Iraq, including ISIL, the officials said.
That may also help explain the look on Netanyahu’s face. Thought bubble: “This guy’s about to blurt out that it was Jordan that provided the intelligence all along!”
Update: Ah, my mistake. He said this in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. I fixed the headline.