White House

Trump's Best Defense on Russia Is Incompetence

Somehow that's not reassuring.

Girl, you will not believe what I just heard.

Photographer: Photographer: Pete Marovich/Pool

One way you know the president is in trouble is that, accused of collusion, his best defense is incompetence. Such is the case with Donald Trump's firing of James Comey. And such is the case with the latest scandal to hit this White House, that Trump disclosed highly classified information in his meeting last week with Russia's foreign minister. 

Eli Lake Says Trump Actions Show Incompetence

It looks terrible. Trump fires the FBI director investigating Russia's influence of the election, and the very next day has the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office. He proceeds to divulge to his guests  sensitive details about an allied intelligence operation that detected an Islamic State plot against airlines. U.S. officials told the Post that this disclosure was "reckless" and violated the trust of an allied spy service. The implications could be grave. Intelligence cooperation could be chilled. A human source could be in danger. Our efforts to disrupt the Islamic State could be hobbled.

That said, this doesn't look like collusion with the Russians. "Collusion" implies the information should not be shared. The U.S. actually should inform Russia about terrorist threats against airlines, so long as this sharing is done with care. Both of Trump's predecessors pursued sensitive counterterrorism partnerships with President Vladimir Putin. Also, Russia lost an airliner in 2015 over the Sinai to an Islamic State bomb. Putin claims to be fighting the Islamic State in Syria (which his air force has repeatedly failed to distinguish from Syrian civilians).

This leaves us with the president's incompetence. On this score, the Washington Post story is damning. It says that current and former U.S. intelligence officials fear that Russia could reverse-engineer the sources and methods of the intelligence Trump shared because he revealed the city from which the Islamic State was plotting laptop bombings against airliners. The error was serious enough that the Post reported the White House briefed the intelligence community and intelligence oversight committees on the breach. Senior Trump administration officials did not dispute those facts in on-the-record statements Monday evening.  

In addition to being incompetent in a national security sense, the flub is also politically embarrassing for the president. Remember that Trump campaigned on the idea that Hillary Clinton was unfit to be president because her use of a private email server was evidence of mishandling classified information. Clinton must find in this story a delicious schadenfreude.

But in light of that, it's also important to get some perspective. Let me make a prediction here. Whichever allied intelligence service had its sources and methods endangered will not end intelligence sharing with the U.S. I base this on the fact that in the last seven years, the U.S. has endured worse. American allies were also exposed by the State Department cables shared with the world by WikiLeaks and the NSA documents provided to journalists by Edward Snowden. The Obama White House blamed a 2012 Associated Press story on another threat to airlines for disclosing a source from an allied intelligence service within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Today we remember this incident primarily for the extraordinary steps the Justice Department took to monitor the phone records of AP reporters in its subsequent leak investigation.

None of those stories are comparable to the prospect of a sitting president sharing too many details about intelligence with a major adversary like Russia. But it's a reminder that the U.S. intelligence community has suffered greater breaches, and its relationships have survived.

Finally, the relationship with Russia is complicated. If it were up to me, I would pursue a policy of quarantine against Moscow and treat Putin and his henchmen like the diplomatic equivalent of Ebola. Past U.S. presidents though have disagreed. Barack Obama for example cooperated with Russia on arms control, the Iran agreement and counterterrorism, while challenging Russia on cyberwar and Ukraine. On Syria, he did a little of both.

Indeed, it was Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, who proposed in August a plan by which the U.S. would share sensitive targeting information with Russia in Syria to forge a partnership in fighting the Islamic State. At the time, military leaders balked at the idea of sharing such intelligence with a country that was bombing the rebels the U.S. were ostensibly supporting in Syria.

Trump has said he would like to pursue partnership with Russia as well in Syria. Of course, it's politically much harder for him to do that when his campaign is being investigated by the FBI for its ties to Russia. It's even harder after last week, when he fired the FBI director leading that investigation. This latest blunder sets back this agenda even further.

Perhaps we'll learn eventually that this was all a grand scheme of the Kremlin's. It's also possible that the intelligence breach reported Monday by the Washington Post is less than meets the eye -- a gaffe without huge consequences. The most likely explanation for now is troubling enough: The president is bad at his job. Stupid trumps sinister.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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