Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Loose Lips Sink Presidencies

The Russian intel story shows the price of Trump’s lost credibility.


By Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
May 17, 2017

The state of the Trump Presidency has been perpetual turbulence, which seems to be how the principal likes it. The latest vortex is over Mr. Trump’s disclosure of sensitive intel to the Russians—and whatever the particulars of the incident, the danger is that Presidencies can withstand only so much turbulence before they come apart.

The Washington Post reported Monday night that in an Oval Office meeting last week Mr. Trump relayed high-level “code word” classified material obtained from an ally to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Cue another Washington meltdown. The President took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to defend himself, claiming an “absolute right” to disclose “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.”

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster put a finer point on it at a Tuesday press conference, though without denying key details. He said Mr. Trump’s disclosure was “wholly appropriate” and didn’t expose intelligence sources and methods.

Presidents sometimes share secrets with overseas leaders—even to adversaries such as the Soviets during the Cold War—if they conclude the benefits of showing what the U.S. knows will aid diplomacy or strategic interests. From media accounts and his tweets, Mr. Trump said something about Islamic State’s laptop bomb threat to airlines. He may well have been trying to convince the envoys of the menace ISIS poses to Russian lives and foreign-policy goals, like the Russian airliner that exploded over Sinai in 2015.

Then again, the Post story has Mr. Trump boasting about how great U.S. intelligence is and divulging the info on impulse to prove it. National security officials also asked the reporters to withhold specifics about the item in question, presumably because further disclosure could undermine efforts to counter the threat or endanger the lives of human assets.

Reports emerged on Tuesday that the ally that gathered the material is Israel, and the revelation could endanger this and other intelligence-sharing relationships. The Israelis may hold back if they think their dossiers will be laundered through the U.S. to the Russians and then get passed to their Iranian and Syrian clients, and other foreign services may lose confidence in the U.S.

Lt. Gen. McMaster said he disputed “the premise” of the Post story, which was that Mr. Trump had done something wrong or unbecoming. He confirmed that Mr. Trump made the decision ad hoc “in the context of the conversation,” not before the meeting. The problem is that even if the President’s conduct was “wholly appropriate,” the story’s premise is wholly plausible.

The portrait of an inexperienced, impulsive chief who might spill secrets to an overseas foe is one to which Mr. Trump has too often contributed. It was political mismanagement even to hold the Russian meeting, especially the day after he fired FBI Director James Comey amid the investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged Russian connection.

This eruption shows why a President’s credibility is so important. If people don’t believe Mr. Trump’s words or trust his judgment, they won’t give him the benefit of the doubt or be responsive if he asks for support. Last week the White House spent two days attributing Mr. Comey’s firing to a Justice Department recommendation, only for Mr. Trump to insist in a TV interview that the pink slip came “regardless of recommendation.”

News broke late Tuesday of Mr. Comey’s contemporaneous notes that Mr. Trump asked him in February to “let this go,” referring to the FBI probe of axed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The White House denied that account of the conversation, but that would be more credible if its previous statements were more reliable.

Mr. Trump’s strife and insults with the intelligence community were also bound to invite blowback. The Post report is sourced to “current and former U.S. officials,” which raises the question of how former officials are privy to “code word” information, defined as anything that could be expected to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security if disclosed. In that case the public leaks about Mr. Trump’s actions, if true, will do more damage than whatever he said in private.

Mr. Trump is considering a White House shakeup, including cleaning out many of his top aides, but the White House always reflects the President’s governing style. If Mr. Trump can’t discipline himself, then no Jim Baker ex machina will make much difference.

Mr. Trump needs to appreciate how close he is to losing the Republicans he needs to pass the agenda that will determine if he is successful. Weeks of pointless melodrama and undisciplined comments have depleted public and Capitol Hill attention from health care and tax reform, and exhaustion is setting in. America holds elections every two years, and Mr. Trump’s policy allies in Congress will drift away if he looks like a liability.

Millions of Americans recognized Mr. Trump’s flaws but decided he was a risk worth taking. They assumed, or at least hoped, that he’d rise to the occasion and the demands of the job. If he cannot, he’ll betray their hopes as his Presidency sinks before his eyes.


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