Two days ago we wrote about Trump sharing classified intelligence with the Russians. In the ensuing 48 hours, the political fallout has overtaken the headlines and become muddled as new allegations emerge. For this reason, deciphering what is going on can be a challenge. Let’s recap the major events this week:
Monday, May 15: Washington Post reports that Trump revealed classified intelligence to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador during his meeting with them at the White House last Wednesday. The White House surrogates, led by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster denied the reports.
Tuesday, May 16: Trump tweeted that he did in fact share intelligence.
McMaster held a press conference to provide additional nuance to his stance from the previous day. He said that Trump’s sharing of information was “wholly appropriate.” He clarified that he stood by his denial from the previous day. This seems contradictory but McMaster defended himself by saying that the Washington Post’s reporting was inaccurate because Trump did not reveal the source of the intelligence.
Later on Tuesday, The New York Times reported that former FBI Director James Comey had been asked by Trump to stop the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in February. Comey had recorded the incident in a memo and shared it with colleagues. The Republican of the House Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) requested all documentation between Comey and Trump and threatened a subpoena.
Wednesday, May 17: The Department of Justice appointed a Special Counsel to investigate Russia’s involvement in the election. The special counsel is former FBI Director Robert Mueller III. Mueller served as the FBI Director under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His appointment was met with praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Each event has been its own storm of news that includes Congressional responses, insider accounts, analyses on the political implications, legal analyses, and more. As a result, the information this week can be difficult to organize.
Let’s focus on the big three events.
1.) Trump’s sharing of intelligence with Russian dignitaries
2.) Comey’s memo stating Trump requested he halt investigating Flynn
3.) The appointment of a Special Counsel
We have three separate events occurring, but they are likely all related. Would the memo have been leaked if Trump had not shared intelligence with Russia (or fired Comey last week)? Would the Special Counsel have been appointed if the intelligence hadn’t been shared and the Comey memo were not leaked?
In any event, the three events certainly amplify each other. News sources across the spectrum are covering these events with a lot of time and resources.
Since this is a Fallout post – let’s focus on the White House response to the revelations and how it failed to prevent the next two events from happening and failed to set the media narrative for the week.
H.R. McMaster was the prime surrogate defending Trump this week. He delivered a statement on Monday stating, “I was in the room, it didn’t happen.”
After Trump tweeted on Tuesday that yes, he did in fact share intelligence, McMaster called a press conference. This time he emphasized the portion of his statement that said intelligence sources were not compromised.
One way to view this is that McMaster had to change his stance after Trump admitted to sharing intelligence. In this view, McMaster’s integrity takes a hit. Moreover, since he was speaking on behalf of the White House, the administration comes across as unable to keep its story straight for even 24 hours.
Another view is that McMaster is a victim of the media. He was consistent in both statements that intelligence sources were not compromised. It is only the reporting that is giving this an appearance of being contradictory.
Why didn’t McMaster come out and make a statement much closer to what Trump tweeted? Something along the lines of, “The President shared intelligence for the purposes of fighting ISIS. He did not compromise our intelligence sources.” If you feel that he did, and the media is just distorting, then why did Congressional Republicans distance themselves from the White House instead of lining up behind McMaster?
If a let-me-explain press conference needs to be called, then something went wrong. Was it that McMaster was lying or was it that he just was not clear enough the first time?
The result has been confusion, an escalation of the Trump-Russia connection in the news cycle, and the appointment of a Special Counsel. The stakes were high enough for the White House to make more of an attempt to stick with one story.
Lastly, why is the turn of events with McMaster important? It fits into a narrative that the White House is uncoordinated. Can an uncoordinated White House have disastrous consequences beyond the Russia investigation?