The Washington Post’s blockbuster story that Trump leaked “code-word information,” per a US official, using terminology to indicate the highly sensitive intelligence, is rocking Washington.
The administration is scrambling to defend the Post’s reporting, hastily sending out National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to provide a very brief press conference.
Here’s the key part: “the story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. ... At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed.”
However, McMaster is issuing a non-denial denial — denying something that wasn’t actually reported. To be clear, the Post says that Trump shared intelligence provided by the source, not that the president leaked who the source is.
But the Russians are very capable in the intelligence field and, if the reporting is true, should be able to reverse-engineer the information and figure out who the source is.
This is a big deal. The Russians now have information that even some of America’s top allies do not have, and on top of that, they can find out where this information might be coming from.
We just heard from McMaster, but here are Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments:
JUST IN: Tillerson statement on Washington Post report: Trump & Russians "did not discuss sources, methods or military operations pic.twitter.com/mkeyMGRPkI— Jeremy Diamond (@JDiamond1) May 15, 2017
This is, at best, a lukewarm response, especially when compared to the statements put out by Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, McMaster’s direct report (you will also find McMaster’s earlier statement before the press conference):
And here's HR McMaster & Dina Powell statements: pic.twitter.com/6OVNYbBfYJ— Jeremy Diamond (@JDiamond1) May 15, 2017
Let’s notice the differences. Tillerson does not say the story is fake; Powell emphatically does, and McMaster said as much during the press conference. Tillerson does not mention if intelligence was discussed; McMaster’s does.
They do all say they discussed “common threats” — indicating a centrally organized communications strategy — but the tones of each are quite different.
It’s worth noting that McMaster and Powell were in the room with Trump and the Russians (Tillerson had met with Russian Foreign Minster Lavrov, one of the Russians in the Oval Office, earlier in they day).
For now, here’s what we know about what happened, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp reported earlier:
The information Trump revealed to Lavrov concerned information about an ISIS plot to bomb airplanes using laptops.
Revealing it “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State,” according to the Post — specifically by giving the Russians enough information about the nature of the source to easily identify who or what it is.
That intelligence came from “espionage capabilities of a key partner,” per Jaffe and Miller. It was so sensitive that it wasn’t being shared with other allies, though we’re not sure which one it is.
Reportedly, the gaffe — something unprecedented in recent American history — came because Trump was bragging about the quality of his intelligence. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president reportedly said.
So this may be where the media takes a stand against the administration’s charges of “fake news.” McMaster emphatically denies something the Washington Post didn’t actually report. The ramifications of who ends up proven correct are massive not only for the Fourth Estate but for the presidency and, ultimately, the country.