The Washington Post reported that President Trump revealed highly classified information during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last Wednesday. The meeting occurred last week at the White House. The information shared by Trump detailed an ISIS plot. Trump did not reveal the source of his intelligence, or how the information was gathered. However, he may have revealed details that Russians can piece together to determine the source on their own.
Most mainstream news outlets are reporting the event as headline news.
The Washington Post and New York Times have similar framing. This is another event in Trump’s seemingly cozy relationship with Russia. This is reported with alarm for several reasons.
A.) The information was highly classified and not even shared with many US allies. This was done to protect intelligence sources. Both stories note that the intelligence source has been frustrated with the ability of the U.S. to protect sensitive information. This may damage the relationship with the intelligence source and prevent the U.S. from receiving further information.
B.) The reason for Trump revealing the information was to boast to the Russians. The anonymous source of the story quoted Trump as saying, ““I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.” Trump’s offhand and cavalier way of handling meetings with foreign dignitaries is portrayed as wreckless. This feeds into the characterization of Trump as a megalomaniac with an inability to regard the consequences of his actions.
C.) This plays into the mainstream media narrative of Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia. The meeting with the Lavrov and Kislyak took place the day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
D.) This was not illegal. The President can declassify information at any time. However, it would be illegal for anybody besides the President to share this information with a foreign entity.
Both stories go on to quote notable intelligence and political sources expressing shock at the revelation. Most notably, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, expressed as close to an admonishment of the White House as Republicans will give: “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.”
Notably, the Trump administration has denied the reported story. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, said, “I was in the room – it didn’t happen.” This stance was supported by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy, Dina Powell.
Fox News is not reporting the event as today’s central news. Instead, the primary Fox News headline is “Clinton Launches Onward Together PAC, Calls on Members to ‘Resist.’ The reportage of the Russian meeting is a secondary story. The headline is, “White House Denies Report Trump Revealed Classified Info About ISIS to Russians,” and that is the thrust of the coverage. Fox leads with more denials from H.R. McMaster followed by the same on-the-record quotes used by other sites from Tillerson and Powell. The story is much less in-depth and does not speculate on the intelligence fallout. It follows a clear structure of summarizing the Washington Post’s claims, reporting the Administration’s response, and supplying a few responses from Corker, as well as Democrats Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
The Associated Press focused less on the intelligence fallout and more on the political fallout. They noted that the revelation received condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats. The AP was also much quicker to point the refutations by White House surrogates. However, the AP does note that the Communications team, led by Sean Spicer, went behind closed doors and “muffled yelling” was heard. This lends itself to the portrayal of the White House as somewhere between inept and/or caught off guard.
Bridging the Bias:
This event falls into a pattern that is becoming increasingly common when surprising news breaks from the White House which is to pit the reporting source (Washington Post in this case) versus the word of the White House (McMaster, Powell and Tillerson today). This he-said she-said dynamic – one that replays itself with increasing frequency – contributes to polarization because one’s view of events is heavily influenced by which side they believe.
The White House perspective is that the reported events did not happen. They are not making the case that even if Trump did reveal that information, it is his prerogative. They are not saying he shared classified information for the purpose of collaborating with Russia to defeat ISIS. So based on this, if Trump did reveal the classified information as reported, should that be a cause for outrage?
Does sharing this information with Russia help advance the U.S.’s foreign interests? There is nothing to suggest this, but there is also little detail on what exactly was said.
Does this endanger the U.S.’s intelligence relationships?
Does sharing information with Russia offset potential damage to the U.S.’s intelligence relationships?
On the other hand, mainstream media sources and high-level politicians from both parties expressed confoundment and, outside the Administration, even Republicans did not question the integrity of the reporting. How should this be interpreted? Is the lack of Congressional Republicans defending Trump an indication that they believe Trump revealed information?