Trump is the denying an allegation that, literally, no news organization made.
Because trust in the media is so low -- particularly among Trump's base -- his strategy of making up an allegation that he can then deny might work.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the date of Trump's meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.
After an appearance alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, President Donald Trump paused to push back against reports that he had disclosed highly classified information to the Russians.
“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel’,’” Trump told reporters in Jerusalem. “Never mentioned it during that conversation. They were all saying I did. So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word ‘Israel’.”
The story Trump was reacting to was this one, which ran a week ago in the Washington Post. And the thing about that story is that, well, the word “Israel” is never mentioned. Not one time.
As Greg P. Miller, one of the authors of that story, tweeted: “Trump still non-denying denying that he shared classified intel with Russian officials.”
In a follow-up story, the New York Times reported – citing anonymous sources – that the information that Trump had passed along had come to the United States from Israel. But even in that piece there is no allegation that Trump mentioned the word “Israel” in his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Trump is the denying an allegation that, literally, no news organization made. He’s also implicitly confirming that, yes, he did talk to the Russians about classified information. While the president has total freedom to de-classify material, the White House has urged media organizations – including CNN – not to report on the specific information Trump passed along due to how highly sensitive it is.
That’s always the toughest question when it comes to diving Trump’s motivations. But, I can think of two obvious reasons:
1. He’s showing off in front of Netanyahu: Remember that, at heart, Trump is a showman. And he likes to perform on the big stage when he knows lots and lots of important people are watching. He also knows that Netanyahu is well aware of the reporting that Trump passed along information from Israel to the Russians and wants to publicly combat the issue. Even if what he is saying just doesn’t gibe with the facts.
2. He’s trying to change the subject: Trump is a master at deflection. The ongoing story of his May 10 meeting with the Russians is a total disaster for him and one that he and his White House team haven’t figured out a good answer for yet. So it’s possible Trump is free-lancing – denying a claim no one made as a way to say “This is all fake news. And I’ve already addressed it.”
Because trust in the media is so low – particularly among Trump’s base – his strategy of making up an allegation that he can then deny might work. But that doesn’t change the basic underlying facts. Which, to reiterate because it’s important, are these: Trump told two Russian officials highly classified information in the Oval Office. Period.
Nothing Trump said today in Israel disputes those facts – or explains them.