It’s open season for leaks of presidential conversations in Washington. Last night, the Washington Post reported on one that has long held fascination for the media — just what did Donald Trump tell Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in their 2017 Oval Office meeting the day after Trump fired FBI director James Comey? It had previously been reported that Trump expressed satisfaction that the move had relieved “great pressure” on him, and also that he may have inadvertently exposed an Israeli intelligence source on ISIS.
But that’s not all Trump told Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, at least allegedly:
President Trump told two senior Russian officials in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries, an assertion that prompted alarmed White House officials to limit access to the remarks to an unusually small number of people, according to three former officials with knowledge of the matter.
That would have been an incredibly dumb thing to say in those circumstances, but it’s not as if Trump hasn’t made similar remarks before that meeting, too. In 2015 on the campaign trail, Trump dismissed Vladimir Putin’s habit of disappearing journalists and dissidents by saying, “I think our country does plenty of killing also,” while praising Putin’s leadership skills. He didn’t need the Oval Office to let Putin off the hook for that homicidal track record, which has continued since then as well. At times, Trump has casually and publicly discounted election interference as something everyone does as a way to minimize the impact it had on the 2016 election, so these remarks can’t be a surprise or considered any kind of state secret.
Besides, the truth is that we have interfered in other countries’ elections. One theory of the Russian motive behind the DNC hack was that it was payback for US attempts to help his election opposition in 2012, when the Secretary of State was one Hillary Rodham Clinton. Remember what the Senate found about the State Department’s failed attempts to boost Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents in 2014? And even then, the John Kerry-led State Department was sensitive, according to the Senate, about the US track record of interfering in foreign elections, which is why they used a shell game to make the funding more indirect. And that was just the recent history of election interference; don’t even get our South American neighbors started on more distant events.
It’s what happened next that might be the most interesting part of the Washington Post story. It indirectly corroborates one allegation of the whistleblower at the heart of Ukraine-Gate, which is that the White House has a pattern of covering up Trump’s actions when conducting diplomacy:
A memorandum summarizing the meeting was limited to a few officials with the highest security clearances in an attempt to keep the president’s comments from being disclosed publicly, according to the former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
The White House’s classification of records about Trump’s communications with foreign officials is now a central part of the impeachment inquiry launched this week by House Democrats. An intelligence community whistleblower has alleged that the White House placed a record of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, in which he offered U.S. assistance investigating his political opponents, into a code-word classified system reserved for the most sensitive intelligence information.
That appears to set up a pattern of behavior, not just of Trump but of the people surrounding him in the White House. However, there are a couple of caveats to this theory. First, it’s not clear that this transcript got moved into any other system than the legitimate one:
It is not clear whether a memo documenting the May 10, 2017, meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak was placed into that system, but the three former officials said it was restricted to a very small number of people. The White House had recently begun limiting the records of Trump’s calls after remarks he made to the leaders of Mexico and Australia appeared in news reports. The Lavrov memo was restricted to an even smaller group, the former officials said.
A fourth former official, who did not recall the president’s remarks to the Russian officials, said memos were restricted only to people who needed to know their contents.
I hate to burst people’s bubbles, but classified material is always restricted to need-to-know. When I held a secret clearance, I did not have access to everything classified at that level — only the material I needed to access to do my job. Had I ever attempted to access material not related to my assignments (which were nowhere near as sexy as any of this sounds, readers should keep in mind), I would have risked being investigated and likely would have lost my clearance as a result. Perhaps someone should explain that to the Washington Post.
Furthermore, while fact patterns are important, the facts have to be the same. The whistleblower claims that the change in storage for the Zelensky call was to cover up an actual abuse of power, ie, the demand for dirt on opponents in exchange for American aid. This leak alleges nothing more than stupidity on the part of Trump and (potential) embarrassment on the part of his White House team.
If it does set up a fact pattern, that might be the actual fact — that his team also found the Zelensky conversation embarrassing too, rather than an abuse. That doesn’t make the storage switch legitimate, as those systems are designed to protect national interests, not the president’s political interests. If the president embarrasses himself in his diplomatic efforts, that’s on him. But that alone doesn’t mean that anything else other than embarrassment over impolitic remarks took place, and the Zelensky transcript — on its own, anyway — doesn’t support any kind of prima facie case for intimidation or corruption. (Rudy Giuliani’s activities might be another matter entirely.)
This leak to the Washington Post might actually strengthen the case for more sensitive handling of these transcripts. Presidents, even bull-in-china-shop presidents, have to be able to hold discussions in confidence with other diplomats and foreign leaders in order to deal with important issues of state. The leaks of the contents of those conversations, especially in this case where it’s done strictly for the sake of embarrassment, undermines the confidence that other leaders will have in the confidentiality of those discussions. That won’t just impact Trump but every successor to the office that follows after him. That’s why Mike Pence was initially opposed to the release of the Zelensky transcript, but Trump decided he had no choice but to try to clear his name in public.
At any rate, to the extent this is an issue in the Ukraine-Gate probe, it’s tertiary at best and perhaps contradictory in the end. Being shocked that Trump said something foolish and embarrassing in private about moral equivalencies qualifies only for a Captain Louis Renault Award.