When does President Donald Trump’s inexperience and incompetence become a clear and present danger to America’s national security?
That fraught question has to be asked after what may be the most alarming episode yet.
As first reported by The Washington Post, Trump shared highly classified information with top Russian officials about a threat by the Islamic State to use laptop computers to blow up civilian airliners – details we hadn’t even told our allies.
So now a dangerous terrorist group knows it has a spy in its highest circles. Allies may not be so willing to share intelligence. The New York Times reported that the information in question came from Israel, a crucial U.S. partner in the Middle East that Trump will visit Monday on his first foreign trip as president.
Will this be the tipping point for Republicans who have been far too willing to look the other way from Trump’s transgressions?
It’s one thing for a few Republican senators to express concern and call for clarification on what happened. It’s quite another for Republicans in contested districts to break rank and speak out. These include several California Republicans: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce of Orange County, Foreign Affairs committee member Darrell Issa of Vista, and Steve Knight of Lancaster, who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Most prominently, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is responsible for protecting GOP incumbents. They can try to stay silent now, but they will have to answer to voters next year.
H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, defended his boss Tuesday, repeatedly claiming what the president did was “wholly appropriate.”
But McMaster also said Trump wasn’t briefed on the source and method of the intelligence. So he apparently spilled information without knowing, or caring, how sensitive it was. And if the disclosure was so benign, why were the CIA and National Security Agency alerted?
Maybe it was because who was in the Oval Office last Wednesday. They weren’t diplomats from a close ally, but from Russia, an adversary that U.S. intelligence agencies say interfered in the presidential election to boost Trump. Trump was talking to Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, whose contact with Michael Flynn led to Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser and meeting with Jeff Sessions led to the attorney general’s recusal from the probe into any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. And the meeting was the day after Trump fired James Comey, the FBI director leading that investigation.
Trump declared on Twitter that he has the “absolute right” to share facts and wanted to do so on “terrorism and airline flight safety” for “humanitarian reasons.” “Plus,” he tweeted, “I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
It’s true that the president can choose to disclose classified information, but it’s usually done after a formal review with intelligence agencies, not off the cuff “in the context of the conversation,” as McMaster put it.
Then there’s the rank hypocrisy of Trump being careless with classified information when he blasted Hillary Clinton for doing the same thing.
Besides, Trump’s explanation is undermined by what his own administration did Monday on Syria, an Islamic State stronghold. The State Department accused the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is being propped up by Russia, of executing thousands of prisoners and burning the bodies in a large crematorium – “a new level of depravity.” Did Trump forget that just last month he ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for an apparent nerve gas attack?
The bottom line is that the Russians knew first and more about this threat than our allies, much less the American public. Even Trump’s most loyal defenders can’t be happy about that.