A new Washington Post report alleges that Trump gave Russian officials classified information
Frida Ghitis: If true, it's yet another example of the President's self-destructive behavior preventing the White House from functioning
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
The Washington Post published yet another bombshell report about our President Monday. The story, citing unnamed US officials, alleges that Donald Trump gave visiting Russian officials details of intelligence on ISIS and a plot to blow up planes using laptops – information that had been given to the United States by an ally.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and its ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, were made privy to information so secret that the United States had not shared with its own allies, according to the news report – but Trump bragged about it to officials from a hostile government. CNN has not confirmed the Washington Post report or a New York Times report that followed it.
But if it is true, it would reflect an unspeakable lapse in judgment and could have serious ramifications for US security and diplomacy. Trump, who complains bitterly about how others treat him, has once again with his own behavior – his own apparent inability to control himself – created yet another mess for himself and for the country.
In the process, he is showing Americans – once again – that he is utterly incompetent. Americans have been willing to tolerate from him crassness, vulgarity, and a break with the country’s norms and traditions, which he has sold with cynical slogans – he would “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.”
But constantly mounting evidence indicates that the claim of Trump and his supporters – that Trump brought one overarching strength to the office, a businessman’s competence – is also a fraud.
The State Department is denying that Trump revealed secret information in that meeting, which was closed to US reporters but included a Russian photographer. And H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser who participated in the meeting, insisted to reporters, “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the President did not disclose any military operations that weren’t already publicly known … I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”
But security experts say this is a non-denial denial. The Post’s sources say Trump did not directly reveal methods, but gave the Russians enough detail that they could “reverse engineer” the information to find its source and the methods used to obtain it, such as the city where the information was obtained, and other details. In addition, critics say that reports of the White House rushing to inform the CIA and the National Security Agency about the revelations to the Russians confirm they realized the President committed a major mistake.
Of course, much remains unclear about what happened inside the Oval Office and how far-reaching its effects might be.
What is clear is that this incident fits neatly into an alarming, unrelentingly chaotic pattern from our President.
Trump has claimed repeatedly that he is treated unfairly by the media, by the intelligence community and by the courts, but Donald Trump’s worst enemy is Donald Trump. Nothing has hurt the President, his governing agenda and his prospects for governing a full term more than his own statements.
Indeed, the Post report, which came Monday afternoon, followed the most recent court hearing that morning over Trump’s embattled, and so-far stalled, effort to temporarily ban people from six Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the United States. And his self-destructive behavior was reaffirmed minutes later during the daily White House briefing, when much of the questioning centered on the multiple crises spun by Trump’s own statements.
At the 9th Circuit hearing, a three judge panel in Seattle listened as White House lawyers defended an executive order they had valiantly tried to sanitize in an effort to please the courts, which keep stopping it as unconstitutional. But the lawyers’ efforts could well be in vain, judging by the tone of the questioning by the judges (whom Trump has also attacked). Again and again, the lawyers’ and judges’ discussion went beyond Trump’s executive order to parse the President’s own statements – on the campaign trail, on Twitter and in speeches as President.
Normally, the courts give Presidents enormous latitude in crafting measures aimed at securing the country. But in Trump’s case, judges – such as US District Judge Derrick Watson, in Hawaii, who used Trump’s own words in explaining why he issued a worldwide restraining order on the ban – do not sound convinced that the administration is telling the truth when it claims the travel ban is about security. Instead, they suspect it’s about religion.
Where do they get such an idea? You guessed it: It was Trump himself who, in December of 2015, dramatically called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. His many pronouncements and actions since then have not eased their concerns.
As so many, including Vice President Mike Pence, noted at the time, targeting members of one religious group is a clear violation of the US constitution.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins asked Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall for an update on the President’s views. “Has the President ever disavowed his campaign statements – has he ever said, ‘I said before I want to ban all members of the Islamic faith …. I was wrong?’”
“Yes,” Wall replied, “he has said several things approaching that.”
Neal Katyal, the lawyer for Hawaii, demurred. The government, he said, cannot offer a single instance of the President disavowing his promise to impose a “Muslim ban” – because he hasn’t.
Trump is making statements that may keep some supporters happy, but he’s also fueling a growing determination to stop his most egregious moves among those who see his presidency as an affront to democracy. For them, Trump is providing the most powerful ammunition.
During a press briefing after the 9th Circuit hearing, Spicer tried to bat down questions about another Trump statement – in the form of a tweet – that implied Trump may have a recording system in the White House.
The President personally put that on the national agenda when he tweeted the veiled threat against former FBI Director James Comey, telling him to be careful because he might release “tapes.” Now the White House refuses to answer any questions on the subject and Democrats are asking to see any existing tapes – and threatening to stall the appointment of a new FBI director unless they do.
When asked if anyone could be comfortable talking to the President in the White House any more, Spicer said Trump has nothing more to say on the subject.
Then there’s the issue of Comey’s firing. There, Trump also created potentially presidency-ending problems for himself. The firing itself, during an FBI investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, is deeply controversial. But when Trump told NBC that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey, the notion that the firing amounts to obstruction of justice – one of the charges on which Nixon was impeached – immediately gained strength.
The preeminent constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe called it a shocking admission that suggests an “obvious effort to interfere with a probe involving national security matters vastly more serious than … Watergate.” It is one more reason why Trump should be impeached now, he said, and not after the many investigations are complete.
Any of these earlier stories from the day – and from a long string of days – would have been enough to raise new alarm about the competency of the leader of the free world. The Washington Post report, if true, ups the ante in Trump’s already risky game.
Which straw will break the back of this presidency? It’s hard to tell, but the straws are getting heavy.
To Trump, all the headwinds are the result of bad judges, biased reporters, and Democrats bent on undermining his presidency. But it’s clear that Trump’s biggest problem is none other than Donald Trump.
Unfortunately for the United States, his apparently willful sowing of confusion and outright blunders, both of which hold potentially dire consequences, are a threat to the country’s security and to its most important alliances.