On Monday night, the question of the hour was did he do it? Did President Trump reveal codeword secrets (some of the most sensitive information that the U.S. government possesses) to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador?
In truth there was never much doubt that The Washington Post expose was accurate, given its depth of detail. If the Post got it wrong, why would national security officials ask its reporters to withhold details about the intelligence in question? But the White House felt compelled to send out National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and his deputy Dina Powell to issue a non-denial denial, labeling the story false but disputing only assertions that the Post didn’t make — for example insisting that Trump hadn’t blown any ongoing military operations. Intelligence operations, well that’s different. Only Fox News was convinced.
Then on Tuesday, having put his aides out on a limb, Trump sawed it off. In a series of tweets, he admitted that yes he had shared the information with the Russians but claimed it was proper to do so.
In a legal sense he’s right: The president can declassify anything he wants. But in a larger moral and strategic sense, Trump committed a horrifying blunder that puts at risk at least one vital U.S. intelligence-sharing relationship (most likely with Jordan, whose King the president spoke with Tuesday morning) and likely more than one; threatens the life of a human asset; and ultimately endangers U.S. security by potentially cutting off valuable streams of intelligence about ISIS terrorist planning.
So now the question is, why did he do it? I think there are three answers: Trump is boastful, ignorant, and inclined to see the Russians as friends rather than enemies. Let’s unpack those.
If the Post account is accurate, Trump’s disclosure to the Russians came in the context of a boast about how great his intelligence is. Good thing he didn’t feel compelled to brag about how quickly he can launch nuclear missiles!
This is of course a pattern with Trump, a man-child who is in desperate, endless need of approbation. He turned this neediness into a successful business strategy because his brand of braggadocio served him well in real estate and reality TV. It is, however, anathema for his current job, in which he must deal with the nation’s most sensitive secrets and measure his words carefully so as not to create diplomatic incidents or even a war by accident. His over-the-top talk has already ramped up tensions, not only with adversaries such as North Korea but also with allies such as Mexico, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among others.
This bring us to the second reason for Trump’s blunder: He has no idea how government works. He is the first president never to have worked in either the civilian or military branches of the government. And amazingly enough he made no attempt to educate himself about policy before he ran for president, probably because he never expected that he would win.
Now he is president and he desperately needs to educate himself about the most powerful job in the world. For a start he needs to learn the very stringent rules for the handling of codeword secrets, which are so sensitive they may be known to only a dozen people in the entire government. But he has a short attention span and an inability to read long documents, combined with a boundless faith in his own ability to improvise and come up with the right answer on the spur of the moment. Hence his latest blunder — and many others.
The final explanation lies in Trump’s benign view of Russia as a potential partner rather than a dangerous adversary. He is willing to share more intelligence with the Kremlin than we share with South Korea, France, or Germany. But then, he has had more critical comments about those countries than he has ever had about Russia. Indeed he consistently praises Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and even defends him from well-founded charges that he murders critics.
What accounts for Trump’s Russophilia? That is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Could it be that Trump simply likes strongmen like Putin? Is he financially dependent on Russian oligarchs? Does Putin have some kind of compromising information that can be used to blackmail him? Is he grateful that Russia helped to elect him? Those are the questions the FBI is probing, and Trump fired FBI Director James Comey to, by his own admission, try to bring that investigation to a close. Perhaps Trump’s relationship with Russia is entirely innocent, but he is certainly acting like he’s guilty of something.
However, for purposes of explaining the disclosure, we don’t have to posit that Trump is a Russian agent. More likely, if hardly reassuring, is that he is simply an ignorant braggart who is unprepared for the presidency.