The Russian Disclosure: Trump’s Game of Truth or Dare

donald_trump_president-elect_portrait_croppedBelow is my column in USA Today on President Donald Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information to the Russians in his controversial meeting after the firing of James Comey.  While the Administration issued a series of categorical denials of the underlying stories as “false,” the next day it appeared to acknowledge that Trump did in fact reveal the information.  As discussed below, it was a wise decision not to repeat the initially misleading statements to Congress.  The intelligence was reportedly generated by Israel, which did not give permission to the President to make the disclosure to the Russians.  Since the New York Times and Washington Post did not say that Trump released “sources and methods,” it now appears that the White House is not claiming that the stories were false.  It is the latest example of denials from the White House which then lead to embarrassing reversals over the course of the coverage.  The only good sign is that the White House saw that the false account was raising serious problems and reversed course the next morning. However, the familiar pattern has taken its toll on the Hill where members were conspicuously absent this time in defending the President.

440px-Potsdam_conference_1945-8At Potsdam, on July 24, 1945, Harry Truman revealed one of the most classified secrets of the United States government to Russian Dictator Joseph Stalin: the existence of the atomic bomb. Truman decided that it was in the national interest to make the disclosure and was reportedly disappointed when Stalin seemed entirely unimpressed. The Stalin shrug was due to the fact that the Russians already knew about the bomb due to spies in our atomic program. Like Truman, Trump has the authority to reveal classified information when he deems it to be in the national interest. Hopefully, it is not done to impress the Russian guys in some chest thumping moment but the motive is not relevant to the inherent power.

In what could prove to be the boast heard around the world, The Washington Post reported that, in the controversial meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, President Donald Trump revealed highly sensitive intelligence related to the Islamic State. According to the report, the disclosure came in the midst a Trump boast about the unbelievable intelligence he has seen. Yet, it is not the disclosure that is so dangerous for the administration.

Trump tweeted the next morning that “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.”  He is right about the right to do so. However, he also has a power to do any number of things from launching an attack on Luxemburg to sharing the launch codes with Putin on his birthday next month.

As a legal matter, it is not the disclosure that is so dangerous for the administration. Any blow, if it comes, would be the result of the official denial of the disclosure. Washington is full of people who dwell in that damp, musky space between truth and lies. This scandal has now entered the area most feared in the Beltway where there is little room for pivots. Either the media is lying or the White House is lying. It is type of zero sum game that is normally avoided in Washington like the plague (and the truth).

While the denials issued by the senior staff of the White House were carefully parsed, the statements were coupled with what sounded like categorical denials of the stories. The problem for either the media or the White House is that the truth can be proven just as conclusively. The New York Times and Washington Post are reporting that information was circulated on the meeting and agencies notified of the breach of classified information. Find the paper trail and we will find the truth.

Sergey_Ivanovich_Kislyak_2016After all of the Trump controversies, few would have imagined that we would have a defining battle over some meet and greet at the White House. Yet, for Republicans, this Russian meeting was been a cascading scandal that has grown worse by the hour. First, many felt that things could not get worse after Trump inexplicably met with the very Russian – Kislyak – at the heart of the Russian influence scandal on the day after he fired FBI Director James Comey. The world was debating whether Trump (who publicly denounced the Russian investigation) had canned Comey to try to curtail the investigation. The next morning, American woke to pictures of Trump laughing in the Oval Office with Lavrov and Kislyak. It was akin to Bill Clinton holding a pool party for female interns the day after the Lewinsky story broke.

Then Politico reported that the meeting occurred at the request of Vladimir Putin and the Russians released the photographs without notice to the White House – sending the administration into another tailspin.

Now, of course, it could be far, far worse.

The White House tried to tie off the story with denials from multiple sources including from the national security adviser. However, many have noted that the denials conspicuously referenced things like “sources and methods” that were not in the original Washington Post story. as opposed to the disclosure of classified information which was. White House staffers further fueled speculation by taking no questions after  their statements.

Like Truman, Trump is not in legal jeopardy if he revealed classified information in the meeting. Moreover, prior administrations, including the Obama administration, have revealed classified information. Mistakes can happen. That is why the disclosure itself is not the central problem. The problem is if, to avoid another political embarrassment, the White House issued false statements denying the entirety of these stories.

Of course, if these stories are untrue, Trump has conclusive proof of how fake news is being knowingly manufactured by the mainstream press. Now, the matter could not be clearer: someone is lying.

The clear import of the statements from the White House is that The Washington Post and news organizations such as The New York Times and Reuters which have independently confirmed the Post’s story are categorically wrong in their reporting. Misleading the public and Congress can be a serious breach for a president as evidenced in both the Clinton and Nixon impeachments.

The administration must brief Congress on any security breaches of this kind, which can magnify legal problems with false statements to Congress.  As shown in the Iran-Contra scandal, false statements (even unsworn statements) to Congress can be a crime.

440px-Comey-FBI-PortraitNational security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters outside the White House that the “story that came out tonight as reported is false.”  Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell was equally categorical and said “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”

Most people would not view that as a spin. That is a denial. The danger line for the White House is when incompetency becomes dishonesty.  Incompetency can be forgiven in an administration. Indeed, some administrations have made it a virtual signature.  Dishonesty is rarely forgiven, particularly on the subject of national security. We will now find out which institution has failed the public: the media or the White House.  It is like a game truth or dare in Washington and the stakes could not be higher.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

45 thoughts on “The Russian Disclosure: Trump’s Game of Truth or Dare”

  1. What did Trump tell the Russians and why is Israel mad? Is Israel mad?
    The whole thing is a bunch of apCray on the rear end.

  2. No fiction editor would buy this story, exclaiming “Too unbelievable!”

  3. There are several issues with Trump’s release of classified information with Russia.

    1) Legal – The POTUS has the right to declassify anything that he deems necessary, and to share it with whomever he wants. There is no crime, and anyone in the media claiming that it is is, or that he should be impeached, should read up about it.

    2) Unintended consequences – the multiple times that Obama has shared classified information with the Russians, we were all very disappointed with the result. For instance, Russia once used the information to bomb our allies. In the same fashion, Trump will be responsible for any negative consequences. Russia is not an ally to be trusted, regardless of their membership in the UN and its Security Council.

    3) Relations with Intelligence with Our More Trusted Allies – This may actually fall under unintended consequences. But if the source of the intelligence is disappointed with the results of its being shared, then this can cool the sharing of information.

    4) Communication – Trump’s Administration has struggled with messaging and accuracy. It needs to say what it means and mean what it says. Were they splitting hairs when they said the story was false, based on Trump’s ability to declassify information, making the illegal sharing of information impossible? We yearn for honesty in our government.

    I am troubled, of course, by the double standard. Obama shared information in an effort at cooperation. It backfired, but there was no nationwide call for impeachment or media frenzy. There has been such concerted media bias that Trump has been tempted to restrict access, which would be a mistake.

  4. I’m heartened to read the beginnings of sanity here. While Democrats are busy working on Impeachment and Special Prosecutors, Republicans can forge ahead implementing his plans.

    1. Thanks Michael. I felt really weird about putting this on the blog, but then again why not? this is a community I am part of — I have not fund-raised since working for the USO in Stuttgart, Germany in the 80s and that was approaching corporations – so it is awkward. Yet, I believe in this young man’s talent and drive and witnessed what they went through so I decided to do so.

      In addition – Evan’s story is a real life examplar of the “American Dream” – the backstory of his mother, Jelena – she grew up in the former Yugoslavia and as a talented pianist was awarded a full scholarship at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. However, her old school Dad refused to let her go saying she needed to stay in the village and take care of the grandmother. Long story short she met an American GI, got knocked up and married and moved to the US. A total innocent village gal – and obviously their marriage did not last.

      So, yeah, HER dream was deferred, but now her son has an opportunity to realize his musical dreams and I am trying to help him any way I can.

      HARLEM by Langston Hughes

      What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

  5. Way OT – I am trying to garner support for my young friend Evan Lux. He is a musical prodigy and was accepted to the Berklee School of Music, but did not get a full scholarship. I’ve known this kid since he was 11 and have watched him succeed despite great odds. He is hard working – both at his music and his part time F&B job. If you’d like to help he has a GoFundMe set up — and even if you don’t want to contribute you might enjoy listening to his original compositions.

    “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls”. – Pablo Picasso

  6. Regarding sharing information with the Russians about an ISIS threat: what if they weren’t informed, the attack took place and the Russians found out we knew about the attack ahead of time. How do you all think that would have played out.

    Regarding Comey’s memo: According to Comey, Trump said, “I hope you can let this go.” He didn’t say I order you to let this go.

    But the NYT headline on the story said Trump told Comey to drop the case. Several paragraphs down they included the actual quote from the memo. But the damage is done. Because many, many people never get beyond the headline.

  7. “Apparently, this information was too sensitive for Trump to give to Russian representatives, but not too sensitive for anonymous officials to leak to the Washington Post, who turn broadcasted it to the entire world…In other words, the Post also knows the details of this classified information. Anonymous officials can leak sensitive information to an unaccountable media outlet, but Trump can’t disclose that information to a delegation of people who could actually benefit from the information? How does that work?”

    1. Of all the people that disclosed classified information to the Russians, and now the rest of the world, which of them had the legitimate constitutional authority to do so?

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