One thing we’ve learned the past several weeks is to ignore the White House and wait for Donald Trump to spill the beans.
Invariably, the president contradicts statements from his communications team and other officials, and blurts the truth. As counterintuitive as it seems, Trump is a truth-teller among spinmeisters.
White House: Baloney! The president did not share any classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval.
Trump: Yeah, sure, I told them some stuff because: (a) As president, I can do anything I want, including discussing whatever; and (b) I want Russia to step up its fight against the Islamic State.
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White House: Absurd! The president did not fire FBI Director James Comey because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion with Russia. He was simply following the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, of whom no one had ever heard until right this minute, but he’s key to everything going forward.
Trump: Yeah, sure I was thinking about the Russia investigation. I’ve been thinking of firing Comey since the beginning. He’s a disaster.
Trump can’t help himself. Lies seem to bore him, even when told in his defense. They’re too much trouble. And, besides, he’s always gotten his way by speaking his and everyone else’s mind. His impulse to share his unfiltered thoughts is precisely what makes him both entertaining and a terrible president.
From his own lips: Trump fired Comey at least partly because of the Russia investigation, which he was certainly entitled to do. He fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates because she refused to enforce his order limiting immigration, which most likely, he was legally justified in doing. Lower-court rulings that the order was essentially a religious ban may not hold up in the Supreme Court, according to legal scholars I’ve consulted. Among other reasons, some non-Muslims live in countries included in the order, and millions of Muslims live in other countries that weren’t included.
And, yes, he shared information with the Russians, which is well within his constitutional authority, if not obviously prudent. According to The Washington Post, which first reported the story and in which I have faith, Trump revealed the Islamic State’s plan to weaponize laptops to bring down airplanes. He also reportedly divulged the city whence the intelligence came, which could expose the source — something even the Post would not reveal. The information was passed on by a partner country with which the U.S. had an intelligence-sharing agreement.
For the foreseeable future, the media will be consumed with this breach of judgment, but not law. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Trump cheerleader. But a dispassionate evaluation of events would seem timely and provide relief from the exploding-heads parade on TV.
The unanswerable question is: Why would Trump do this? Perhaps he is naive, stupid or sly like a fox. But his odd boast to the Russians that he gets “great intel” — “I have people brief me on great intel every day” — seemed more like showing off than a serious discussion of mutual security concerns.
For a time, all we knew is what the leaker wanted us to know. Then, lo and behold, Trump leapt to the Twitter feed to fill in the blanks. Was this wise? Might his disclosures affect others’ faith in the president? (What faith?) Might it bring harm to sources embedded in enemy territory? (Is there anyone older than 10 who didn’t assume that the Islamic State was weaponizing laptops?)
A contrarian might wonder what else was on the table in that room? And who is leaking and for what purpose?
Reporters and columnists love leakers and need them as sources for invaluable information. But it should never be assumed that leakers are all noble whistleblowers or that they act solely out of altruism or loyalty to country. In this town, unfortunately, the same goes for friends and colleagues. Whatever the topic or circumstance, the experienced person always keeps one operative question in sight: What does he/she want out of this?
Oftentimes the answer is an unspoken agreement to be of mutual use to one another. This is the subtext in all negotiations and, perhaps, was foremost in Trump’s mind when he pretended to trust the Russians. Maybe it was a test of trust. Maybe it was just careless bumbling. Who knows?
It’s maddening not to know, but of this we can be certain: Wait awhile. Trump, the impulsive truth-sayer, will tell us sooner or later.
Reach Kathleen Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.