Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Binge-watching "Trump and the Russians"

Let's review, because things are really getting weird and it's important in times such as these to keep our footing. We are witnessing a truly extraordinary series of events:

One week ago Tuesday, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the man who had been leading an investigation into Russian intervention into our election and into possible collusion between Trump associates and the Russians. As Trump would later acknowledge, he fired Comey in part because he believed that investigation was a "hoax" that had gone on long enough.

It is no hoax. U.S. intelligence agencies are adamant that the intervention occurred, that Russia was the culprit and that the intended beneficiary, witting or not, was Trump.

The morning after firing Comey, Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak into the Oval Office, a rare honor for foreign officials.  The honor was especially inexplicable because Kislyak has been deeply implicated in Russia's intervention into our democratic process, which was an assault on our sovereignty and an insult to us as a nation.

Oddly -- or maybe not -- Kislyak had not been included on the official White House guest list for the meeting. The only way that we know that he was there is because of photographs of the event taken by Russia state media. U.S. media were banned from the meeting.

And now, at least as reported Monday night by the Washington Post, we learn that Trump gave the Russians highly sensitive classified information collected by a U.S. ally about ISIS in the strictest of confidence, and that by doing so Trump may have compromised both our ally's source and its willingness to share further data with the blabbermouth Americans.

Not surprisingly, the Trump administration has strongly denied the Post account, but in an odd sort of way.  It denies things that the Post story did not allege, for example by stating that Trump did not discuss any military operations, and it fails to deny things that the story did allege.

So who's telling the truth? Is this much ado about not much, or is it one of the biggest mistakes in the handling of classified information in U.S. presidential history, as some allege? It may be easier to make that judgment than it may seem at first glance.

According to the Post story, top administration officials immediately understood the gravity of the breach committed by Trump and quickly placed calls to the CIA and NSA to warn them about what had happened. (If so, one would hope that the foreign source of that intelligence was quickly notified as well.)  In the Post version, Trump officials also ordered the crux of the president's comments to be "stricken from internal memos and for the full transcript to be limited to a small circle of recipients," to minimize the chance that the classified information would leak.

If true, that tells us not just a lot but everything. If the top leaders of our intel agencies had to be notified immediately, it tells us that the breach was indeed quite serious, despite claims to the contrary by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others. If the information was so sensitive that it had to be cleansed from memos and transcripts to be circulated later within top levels of the U.S. government, then it confirms that there's no way in hell it should have been handed nonchalantly to the Russians.

Finally, if the Post's account is true -- if the NSA and CIA were notified, if the record of the meeting had to be altered -- then it should be fairly easy to document those bureaucratic actions. After all, you don't have to scramble to clean up a mess that supposedly didn't occur in the first place.

UPDATE at 7:15 a.m.:

The pattern holds. What McMaster and others loyally attempted to deny last night has been essentially confirmed by their boss the next morning:

The shorter version of those tweets is that once again, Donald wanted Vladimir to like him, and handed him highly sensitive information as a courting gift. Great. Just ... great.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.