White House enters a new state of denial

Published 8:00 am Thursday, May 18, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

The latest self-inflicted crises at the White House confirm the deepest fears about President Trump’s judgment and self-discipline.

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As the nation was still digesting news that Trump had divulged highly classified information obtained through an ally to top Russian officials, the New York Times reported Tuesday that the president had suggested that then-FBI Director James Comey end his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn.

“I hope you can let this go,” Trump said during a meeting the day after Flynn resigned in February, according to a memo the Times said Comey wrote a day after the conversation. That’s not a direct request, but coming from the president it must have felt that way to Comey.

The White House quickly denied the story, just as it did after news broke Monday that Trump had provided classified material to the Russians. After that story emerged, Trump himself went on Twitter to assert his “absolute right” to disclose such information at his Oval Office meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

It is true that the president can declassify information at will. But such an ability carries the presumption that in doing so, the president would exercise the highest levels of judgment, discretion and purpose, carefully weighing possible repercussions and first communicating the plan with the source nation. There is no evidence that Trump went through any of those calculations before blurting out what is known as code word information — intelligence-speak for information so highly classified it is above top secret, and usually limited to the smallest possible pool.

That he did not also blab the actual source or methods by which the information was obtained — as White House officials contend — is of little consequence. Russia has one of the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering systems in the world and could conceivably trace the information back to its source in the field. Trump may have compromised a valuable ally and its agents. He has without question dealt another blow to U.S. credibility and made other nations justifiably wary of sharing what they know. That breakdown endangers not only this nation’s security, but that of other nations as well.

This latest stumble shows a leader once again indulging his vanity, boasting of his “great intel” and clumsily attempting to curry favor with Russia, in the naive thought that doing so would somehow transform a hardened adversary that hacked the U.S. election into an ally. Trump also cited, without elaboration, “humanitarian reasons.” What reasons would be enough to jeopardize the U.S. relationship with its most important ally in the Middle East, Israel, now widely reported to be the source of the information? Israeli officials have been quick to say they still value the U.S. and have no qualms about intelligence-sharing, but that is the diplomatic answer officials have to make when dealing with the world’s dominant superpower. While the White House continues to dispute the story, it also went into full mop-up mode after Trump’s meeting, alerting the CIA and National Security Agency and scrubbing notes from the meeting to remove sensitive details.

The meeting itself was an oddity. The U.S. has imposed sanctions against Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine and forced annexation of Crimea. American intelligence agencies are uniform in their conclusion that Russians hacked the U.S. election. The list of Russian aggressions is long and growing. Trump’s response? Invite the Russians into the Oval Office, grinning and shaking hands and offering up choice bits of intel. If that’s not chilling enough, there is the distinct possibility the Russians may have a complete transcript of what Trump said, since their state-owned news agency, Tass, was allowed to remain in the room when U.S. news media was barred.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a former Marine intelligence officer, has called for the White House to provide Congress with an unaltered transcript of the meeting. We agree. There is no reason for members of congressional intelligence committees to know less than the Russians.

It’s also imperative that Congress get to the bottom of the new allegations of attempted meddling with Comey, which could turn out to be definitive evidence that Trump tried to influence the Justice Department and FBI investigation into links between his associates and Russia.