(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

White House uses Trump’s ignorance as a defense: “The president wasn’t even aware of” source of intel revealed to Russians

Shorter Donald Trump: Did I do that?


Sophia Tesfaye
May 16, 2017 8:40PM (UTC)

Shortly before Donald Trump was inaugurated in January, an Israeli newspaper reported that U.S. spies “warned Israel not to share intelligence with Trump.” On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to deny multiple reports that Israel was the source of “highly classified” intel that the president revealed to top Russian officials last week.

Learning that Trump shared specific intelligence with Russian officials regarding ISIS plots to smuggle explosive laptops onto planes was what one unnamed Israeli intelligence officer described to BuzzFeed News as Israel's "worst fears confirmed."

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Late Monday, The Washington Post published a blockbuster report that alleged the president used classified intelligence to brag to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting that was closed to U.S. press. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Monday night, Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the Post story was totally wrong, denying things that weren’t even alleged in the story. But only a few short hour later, Trump took to Twitter to undercut his aide’s explanation.

McMaster then returned to the microphones to brief reporters at the White House Tuesday afternoon, where he tipped his hand by simply refusing to “confirm” an explosive new report.

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“I stand by that statement I made yesterday,” McMaster said. The former general all but substantiated the report and described Trump’s remarks in the meeting as wholly appropriate to that conversation" and "consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged."

Of course, McMaster’s claims that Trump did not jeopardize the source of the intelligence did not entail a denial that Trump shared highly classified information with the Russians.

Rushing out of the Brady briefing room, McMaster then dropped this bomb: “The president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from.”

“He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of information either,” McMaster added.

The Steve Urkel-esque “Did I do that?” defense offered by the White House on the record was echoed in off the record accounts White House aides gave to the New York Times:

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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.

The New York Times also reported on Tuesday that Israel was the source of the intel Trump offered the Russians.

"To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge? That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed," one Israeli intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, confirming the Times’ initial report.

Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said in a statement, “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.” 

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Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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