What good is having a secret if you can’t tell people about it?
This is the dilemma President Trump has found himself in many times. Often he just blurts (or tweets) the secret out, as he did recently when he tweeted a probably classified image of an Iranian launch facility, enabling the Iranians (and everyone else) to learn more about American surveillance capabilities.
And according to this extraordinary CNN story, from early in his presidency, the intelligence community felt it had no choice but to make decisions based on the likelihood that the person with almost unlimited access to American secrets probably couldn’t keep his mouth shut — especially when it came to Russia:
In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN.
A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.
The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.
In all the ongoing horrors emanating from the White House, you may have forgotten the story of that Oval Office meeting, but it was truly shocking. It concerned a spy Israel had succeeded in placing near the center of the Islamic State, a piece of information so sensitive that we hadn’t even shared it with many of our key allies. And then Trump, in an apparent attempt to impress the Russians, just told them all about it.
Then Trump defended himself by saying “I have the absolute right” to give incredibly sensitive secrets to our adversaries. This is technically true — as president, he can decide what’s classified and what isn’t, and reveal pretty much whatever he wants, no matter how pathetic or nefarious his motives.
If you were an American intelligence official and you just watched that happen, what would you do? Your obvious response would be to ask, “What else is he going to tell the Russians? What’s he going to tell Vladimir Putin the next time he sees him? What other intelligence assets is he going to burn?”
You’d have to assume the worst, which is apparently what they did.
The recent ludicrousness around “Sharpie-gate” shows how professionals in our government are constantly forced to devote time and energy to propping up Trump’s absurd lies. As my colleague Greg Sargent noted, that was just one of many times Trump has sent people in the administration scrambling to provide support for some idiotic story he has told, not only forcing them to cooperate in his dishonesty but also wasting government resources in the process.
But this story illustrates another dimension to the ways federal officials have had to accommodate Trump: They have been forced to defend the United States of America, its government and its interests from the president himself. As we have learned, this is a task of enormous difficulty and complexity; in a case like this, there are risks to national security and even lives.
And for what? To serve Trump’s embarrassing man-crush on Putin?
Try to imagine something similar happening with any other president from either party. Imagine American intelligence officials saying “We’d better exfiltrate this spy we have in the Kremlin before the president tells the Russians about him” if the president was Obama or Bush or Clinton or Reagan or Nixon or any other. You can’t do it.
It’s in part because of events such as this one that I’m certain history will judge Trump to be the worst president America has had in 230 years. Not just corrupt, not just ignorant, not just impulsive, not just divisive, not just bigoted, not just juvenile and petty and vindictive, but someone so untrustworthy that he couldn’t even be relied on to not spill intelligence secrets to our adversaries.
Some people assert that Trump is in fact a Russian asset; whether you agree will depend on how you define the term. But it has become clear that across the government and the country, everyone has had to adjust their expectations and actions to the fact that the president of the United States simply cannot be trusted to uphold America’s interests, if doing so conflicts with his greed, or his desire to please a foreign dictator, or simply some whim he had while watching “Fox & Friends.”
It may be some time before we understand the full extent of the damage that has caused.