Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national-security adviser, is the White House official with the greatest credibility, both within the press and in both political parties—a result of both his career and his perceived independence from a president whose trustworthiness is in tatters. But a short, sometimes tense briefing Tuesday showed how the current moment tugs McMaster in contradictory directions.
Nine times during the briefing, McMaster repeated the mantra that Trump’s actions in conveying information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak were “wholly appropriate.” But McMaster refused to say whether Trump had revealed classified information, saying the administration wouldn’t comment on what is and isn’t classified. He argued, somewhat confusingly, that it was OK for Trump to say what he said, but that leaks of that information posed a grave danger to national security. But the most surprising moment came at the end of the briefing.
“I should just make maybe the statement here that the president wasn't even aware where this information came from,” McMaster said. “He wasn't briefed on the source of method of information either.”
That line had also been leaked to reporters shortly before the briefing. But it raises more questions than it puts to rest. It is true in a narrow legal sense that the president is entitled to declassify information and share it as he sees fit, but the legalities are only a small portion of the picture here. Is Trump unaware of the sensitivity of information he receives? Is he not informed when the release of such information could inflame allies or jeopardize sources? And how could his decision to divulge the information to Lavrov and Kislyak have been “wholly appropriate” if the president wasn’t even fully aware of the decision he was making?
McMaster—who spoke for less than a half hour before decamping—sought to shift the focus to whoever leaked details of the discussion to The Washington Post and other outlets.
“I think the real issue, and I think what I'd like to see really debated more, is our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality and those releasing information to the press that could be used connected with other information available to make American citizens and others more vulnerable,” McMaster said.
Other administration officials, not least Trump, have similarly argued that leaks about damaging stories are worse than the stories themselves. But that sits uneasily in this case. If Trump could disclose the information to the Russians without a second thought, and without even knowing its source, how could it be so dangerous for reporters to learn even that the discussion had taken place?
The administration has sought to straddle a fence in its response to the story, at once criticizing it as false in some respects while refusing to make any specific comment on the central question, which is whether Trump disclosed classified information to the Russians. McMaster once again did that on Tuesday. But he took heat for a brief statement he made Monday evening. After the story broke, he said that the story was incorrect “as reported” and was adamant that no sources or methods of intelligence had been revealed. Yet neither the Post nor other outlets had asserted that sources or methods were revealed. The White House is apparently hoping that by debunking a story that does not exist, it can cast doubt on one that does.
McMaster defended that statement on Tuesday. “The story combined what was leaked with other information and then insinuated about sources and methods so I wanted to make clear to everybody that the president in no way compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation,” he said.
It is possible, as McMaster argued throughout the briefing, that Trump’s disclosure to the Russians has been overblown, leapt upon by Trump’s many critics and held up as the latest in his string of self-inflicted catastrophes. Certainly, there’s little hard information in the public domain from which to judge.
Believing that, however, requires ignoring the dire interpretations of intelligence sources. But it also requires overlooking the contradictions in the White House’s narrative: Both that Trump’s disclosures were “wholly appropriate,” but that he decided to share it with no clue where it came from, and that the disclosing the leak to the Russians was fine but the American public learning he disclosed it is perilous to national security. If the disclosure is truly much ado about little, the White House spin suggests otherwise.