I guess everyone can put the #fakenews hashtag away for a while, eh? Yesterday, the White House had nat-sec advisor H.R. McMaster issue a broad but unspecific denial after the Washington Post reported that Donald Trump had blurted out highly classified intel to the visiting Russian delegation last week. Rex Tillerson followed suit and the White House communications team issued a terse denial before heading behind closed doors for a meeting.
This morning, as what seems to be a developing pattern, Trump took to Twitter and made hash of the hashtag from his supporters, as well as of White House communications strategy:
Er … why not just say this last night? Why put McMaster in front of a podium to issue a denial if Trump was going to admit it anyway? McMaster’s credibility is one of the assets the White House has to make people comfortable with Trump and his nat-sec policies. They just threw it away for a 12-hour head start on a Trump reversal. It will be interesting to see whether McMaster sticks around after this, or whether he takes enough offense to leave the post. And if he does leave, it will be even more interesting to see who’d want to fill it after this episode.
Legally, of course, Trump’s right. The president is the ultimate classification authority, and can declassify anything at any time. Strategically, it’s as nutty a move as possible, especially since it wasn’t intel developed by US agencies. In other words, it wasn’t ours to share — and now our partners in the intel world, some of whom have good reason to fear the Russians, will think twice about sharing that intel with us in the future.
Trump’s rationale doesn’t make any sense either. Russia has less interest in attacking ISIS “terrorism” than it does in labeling anything opposed to Assad as “terrorism” and destroying it. That includes UN convoys, civilians in Aleppo, and at times bombing US allies on the ground in Syria. Our friend and former colleague Noah Rothman has quite a list of the latter in a March article at Commentary. The last diplomats to get access to the intel Trump shared should have been the two Sergeis — not to mention the TASS photographer who hung out at the meeting.
Trump’s supporters argue that he plays eight-dimensional chess when it comes to deals and politics, but so far we’re not seeing much evidence of it. Instead, it looks much more like an administration captive to an entirely whimsical president, one lacking the sophistication to know who his opponents are, and the wisdom to know when to keep his mouth (and Twitter app) shut. If true heavyweights like McMaster and James Mattis can’t impress upon Trump the need for discretion and strategy, we may be looking at the new normal — and it ain’t pretty. At least it’s not Hillary Clinton only lasts so long.