Below 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.
At 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.
After 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.
National 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.