Russia. It’s uncanny how it’s always about Russia.
Why was Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, forced to resign last August in the middle of the campaign? He did so because of a scandal involving payments that he had taken from Russian oligarchs, a scandal that may yet end with criminal charges.
Why was Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, forced to resign? Because he had been caught lying about secret conversations with the ambassador from Russia. When FBI subpoenas were issued seeking evidence in a criminal probe against Flynn, the subject was tens of thousands of dollars of unreported income from a foreign source. That source was Russia.
When hackers broke into computers at the Democratic National Committee and into the email account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, the hacks were traced back to Russia. When that material was “weaponized” by leakers against the Clinton campaign, the U.S. intelligence community concluded unanimously that it was part of an effort to swing the election to Trump. The perpetrator was Russia, and I’ve barely gotten started.
Why was Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, forced to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation into foreign interference in our election? Because he too had a meeting with the Russian ambassador that he had failed to disclose under oath. Just last week, when Trump fired FBI Director Jim Comey, he acknowledged that he did so in part because of Comey’s investigation into Russia’s role in the election.
Then, on the morning after Comey’s firing, who did Trump host in a rare and apparently jovial meeting in the Oval Office? The foreign minister and ambassador from Russia, the country that a few months earlier had launched those attacks on the integrity of our democracy.
Now we learn that in that meeting, Trump decided to give away highly classified, highly sensitive intelligence — intelligence so important that it could not be disseminated inside the U.S. government or shared with our allies. The breach was so unexpected and considered so important that the heads of the CIA and National Security Agency had to be immediately notified of what the Russians had learned, to minimize the damage.
Initially, the Trump White House strongly denied that such a breach had occurred. That was their story, and they weren’t sticking to it. By the next morning, unable to refute the wall of reporting to the contrary, the White House shifted direction to argue that the breach had occurred but had been “wholly appropriate.”
“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,” Trump explained in a tweet. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
As president, Trump does have the legal power to release even the most sensitive classified data to anyone he chooses. That doesn’t make it wise or even acceptable, and many inside U.S. intelligence agencies are saying that Trump’s action was neither. It is also plausible to share such information with other countries, but such decisions are always carefully considered and thoroughly vetted, with intelligence agencies fully consulted on the consequences.
This revelation was completely off the cuff.
So we are back where we started, trying to puzzle through the source of Trump’s obsessive interest in courting Russia and Vladimir Putin, like an oft-burned moth returning to a flame. And despite the fact that large majorities of Americans tell pollsters that they want an independent, nonpartisan investigation, Republicans in Congress continue to reject the very idea.