In our 16th week of observing the performance of President Donald Trump, here’s what we know:
1. There’s much our president doesn’t know.
2. But he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.
3. Even worse: He clearly doesn’t care that he doesn’t know.
Trump is America’s Impulse President. His decisions happen via spontaneous combustion. Sometimes he acts because he wants to be liked, or admired, or feared, or revered. The rest of the time, he acts because he wants to be loved.
It is all about Trump.
And that’s why, today, somewhere in Syria (or hopefully, by now, maybe somewhere safer in the Middle East), there is an undercover operative of our ally Israel’s Mossad intelligence service whose life has just been thrown into grave danger. Because, in an act that was as mindless as it was willfully uninformed, the leader of the free world has just blown the agent’s cover.
It happened in what, Trump’s explainers have explained, was merely an unplanned blurtation in an Oval Office meeting last week. Trump clearly sought to impress Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he much admires as a strong leader, by revealing to Putin’s emissaries some highly sensitive intelligence U.S. officials received about how Islamic State terrorists plan to use laptop computers to blow up airliners.
Trump apparently surprised even his own national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who is widely respected as the one voice of common sense and sanity on Trump’s White House high command.
McMaster, who had been blindsided and then was summoned to damage-control duty, did his best. He told reporters Tuesday the president just made a spur-of-the-moment decision to disclose this information, which came from a third-country source that clearly expected its identity to be kept secret. McMaster said the president had no knowledge of where this most sensitive intelligence came from or how U.S. officials obtained it when he made the spontaneous decision to talk about it. “The president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from,” said his national security adviser. “He wasn’t briefed on the source of this information, either.”
Trump, meanwhile, defended his action by tweeting about it. He tweeted that he has the right to declassify and divulge information any time he wants to; and that is basically true.
But think about what that means: Trump’s best defense is now that he never stopped to think about whether the intelligence he spontaneously dished to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak could enable the third-country intelligence operative’s enemies to figure out the source’s identity.
Of course, Trump never bothered to think through whether Russian would pass the source’s identity on to the source’s enemies — such as Iran and Putin’s regional pal, Syrian President Hafez Assad. Trump’s comments also reportedly made obvious the city where this intelligence originated (which may have helped Russians or other regional players determine at least the most likely source of this intelligence). By Tuesday evening, it was being widely reported that Israel was at least one of the sources of this intelligence on what IS was planning.
Meanwhile, half a world away, all the above had become a source of great hilarity within Putin’s inner circle. In Sochi, Putin convened a press conference and performed as if he were trying out his skit for Saturday Night Live. He fretted that America must be “developing political schizophrenia.” Indeed, he knew well that Trump had stuck it to the White House press corps by excluding them from covering his meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak — but granting access to Russian cameras, which then provided the only coverage seen around the world and inside the U.S.
Putin of course was also aware of the controversy about whether Trump had tried to get since-fired FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of since-fired national security adviser retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russians — and of Trump’s tweeted suggestion that there might be a recording of what he’d told Comey.
So Russia’s comical president was all smiles as he suggested he might have a recording of what Trump told the Russians inside Trump’s own Oval Office: “If the US administration considers it possible, we are ready to submit a transcript of Lavrov’s talk with Trump to the U.S. Senate and Congress, if, of course, the U.S. administration would want this.”
And so it was that, for America’s Impulse President, this will forever be known as the week when Putin trumped Trump.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.