Listening from Budapest to the Washington debate on whether President Trump leaked intelligence secrets to the Russians in a White House meeting attended by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, as alleged in a Washington Post report, I’m struck by the extraordinary number of people who have been jumping to conclusions — as from an ideological circus’s trampoline while also performing somersaults — in the discussions.
Jonah is an experienced performer on the trampoline when he’s in the mood, but I’m starting with his most recent commentary — because he’s not in that mood on this occasion. In fact, his is the most sober and persuasive analysis so far of what happened and why from a Trump-skeptic standpoint, though that’s not as flattering a compliment as I would like it to be.
The “why” is important — and Jonah raises it by asking if the Post story is “plausible.” He concludes rightly that it is because Trump has shown on a number of occasions that he is boastful, impulsive, and anxious to display his mastery of affairs. And what better occasion to do this than when he is seeking to impress the Russians — an adversary he apparently wishes to win round — by claiming that he has lots of good intelligence that would help them if they were willing to join the U.S. in a fight against their common enemies, ISIS and terrorism?
Might Trump have gone too far in describing just how much he knew and how U.S. intelligence services had acquired the information? Of course, from what we know of the president, he very well might have done. That’s why the report is plausible. And the credibility of Jonah’s argument is enhanced by the fact that he stops there, dismissing as “resistance paranoia” the idea that Trump was engaged in some sort of treasonous covert operation for the Kremlin. Again, rightly so.
Now, we come to the question. Okay, so the Post report is plausible. Is it true? And here Jonah and others have to confront the firm and outright denials the report has received from the three leading U.S. national-security officials. These denials — they appear below — both flatly deny the overall story and dismiss particular points in it. It’s therefore elicited from skeptics two responses: that they don’t clear up the many unanswered questions that the story raises and that therefore the denials, though sweeping, may well be (or for some people, probably are) carefully worded lawyerly evasions.
Jonah raises a reasonable version of the first response and asks four questions about, in particular, the most comprehensive denial from National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster: “Why not take any questions? Why not address the details of the story? Why deny things not alleged? Why did intelligence officials urge the Post to withhold key details if this is ‘fake news’?”
My off-the-cuff replies are: (a) to avoid complicating the clear denial with endless extraneous points; (b) see previous reply; (c) to forestall criticisms that he hadn’t addressed obvious points; and (d) because the Post sources were wrong in saying that Trump had revealed these things but these things were nonetheless intelligence secrets they wanted kept secret. Admittedly, my replies to Jonah’s questions are highly speculative, but that’s because neither of us know for certain what the accurate answers are. I’m merely suggesting that there may be innocent answers to them.
I think we can be more confident, however, in rejecting the criticism that the final words of McMaster’s denial — “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” — were a lawyerly evasion. Admittedly, in the post-Watergate era, journalists have got used to playing linguistic philosophers when parsing political statements. The simplest technique on these lines is to ask: “Well, that’s what he said; but what didn’t he say?” It’s a useful technique for keeping a story alive, moreover, because it sometimes seems as if there is an infinite number of things he didn’t say.
But we shouldn’t confuse logical possibilities with political realities. As a practical political matter, McMaster has said that the story is false, there’s nothing in it, and Trump didn’t reveal intelligence secrets to the Russians. You can’t spin “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” into a denial of something far less than that. If it turns out Trump did reveal intelligence secrets to the Russians, then McMaster will have lied to the country and his resignation will be just a matter of time — as also that of his two fellow-deniers, Dina Powell and Rex Tillerson.
Late-breaking new, however! According to half the reporters and commentators in Washington, Trump has admitted exactly that and revealed his subordinates to be lying gamely on his behalf. Trump today tweeted in two linked tweets as follows:
“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. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Mr. Ryan, prepare the Articles of Impeachment. Or perhaps not. Let’s read those denials one more time:
Rex Tillerson: “During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed, among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism. During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods, or military operations.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell: “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”
H. R. McMaster (in full): “I have a brief statement for the record. There is nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligent sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of the state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”
But when the presidential tweets appeared, a thousand swords leapt from their scabbards to write that Trump had just openly contradicted his top three national-security officials. One or two commentators wondered when their resignations would be submitted.
There will be no need for resignations, however. Nor impeachment. Read all four statement above carefully. What Trump quite clearly does in his tweets is to confirm the statements of his officials.
All four statements say that in the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov Trump discussed common threats facing both countries; McMaster refers specifically to “threats to civil aviation” as being one of them; Tillerson says the same of terrorism; Trump mentions both of these specific threats; all three officials deny the Washington Post story; two of them flatly call it “false;” and the import of Trump’s tweeting is that he discussed these things with the Russians as he had a right to do but not beyond that right.
So, what happened? My guess is that when the Post story appeared, the first reaction of McMaster et al was to think, “That didn’t happen.” But it would be followed by a slightly nervous feeling: “OMG, could I have missed something the Old Man said. Better check the transcript.” And McMaster’s summing up reads to me as if it was written after that check had been made and it confirmed their initial reaction. As things still stand, despite all the foaming and muttering about Trump’s tweets, the firm denial of the three national-security officials stands in the way of the Post story and the fiesta of anti-Trump passion it has kept going.
If that didn’t happen, however, what did? We can only speculate, naturally, but the Post’s sources and “former national-security officials” are as aware as the rest of us of Trump’s impulsiveness, boastfulness, and anxiety to impress. Listening in or hearing later about what transpired at the meeting, they might well wonder at some point, “Was he supposed to reveal that? Did he go off message? Is he referring to this de-classified story or the one still under wraps?” And if either the officials or the reporters were disposed to consider Trump reckless and irresponsible — which is the default position in Washington — they might well conclude that Trump had said more, even much more, than he should have done.
Or — a third possibility — did he say more than he should have done, but less than the Post originally charged, and just little enough to justify the firm official denials?
Is that what happened? Neither Jonah nor I know. But it’s plausible.
Even Later Breaking News: McMaster’s press conference seems to me to suggest that the third possibility is the correct one.