WASHINGTON ― White House officials offered a candid and unflattering defense of their boss on Tuesday, telling The New York Times effectively that President Donald Trump is too inept to have hurt U.S. allies through his sharing of sensitive intelligence with Russian officials during a meeting last week.
Trump has come under heavy criticism in the wake of Monday’s Washington Post report revealing that he “went off script” and offered up “highly classified information” to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. There’s general agreement that Trump didn’t break the law by doing this, but experts have raised concerns that the disclosure may have compromised the U.S. partner that gathered the intelligence ― Israel, according to reports Tuesday.
But Trump would only be capable of inflicting this sort of damage if he were aware of specific details regarding the sources and methods used to compile the intelligence, reportedly pertaining to a plot by the so-called Islamic State to detonate laptop bombs on commercial airliners. And unnamed White House sources told the Times that Trump didn’t know these finer points, because he’s too lazy to glean them from the “great” intelligence reports he gets every day.
Here’s the relevant bit from the Times:
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.
That assessment doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Trump, and it’s unclear if it’s even accurate. Indifferent or not, Trump may have disclosed the Iraqi city at the heart of the reported ISIS plot ― a carefully guarded detail that administration officials previously suggested could “get people killed.”
The bluntness of the anonymous White House officials’ defense of Trump is in line with reports portraying an administration on the brink of upheaval, with its near-constant state of crisis fueling intense bickering inside Trump’s inner circle.
Some officials now apparently view leaks to the press ― such as the one that led to Monday’s Post report ― as the best way to check Trump’s unconventional and often undisciplined style of leadership.
On Tuesday, conservative columnist Erick Erickson rose to the defense of one of the supposed leakers behind the Post story, arguing that sources are going to the media in hopes of producing an “intense blowback” that will force Trump to recognize his errors.
“You can call these sources disloyal, traitors, or whatever you want,” wrote Erickson. “But please ask yourself a question — if the President, through inexperience and ignorance, is jeopardizing our national security and will not take advice or corrective action, what other means are available to get the President to listen and recognize the error of his ways?”
Trump and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have maintained that there was nothing inappropriate about the conversations with Russian officials. On Tuesday, McMaster said the president “wasn’t even aware of where this information came from” and “wasn’t briefed” on its source. Both Trump and McMaster have instead turned their focus on those responsible for the leaks, suggesting they pose a threat to national security.
But U.S. allies have already taken notice of Trump’s careless handling of intelligence, as well as the chaos it has produced. On Tuesday, a European official told The Associated Press that his country might halt intelligence-sharing efforts with the U.S.