Competing Narratives on Trump’s Intel Reveal

Yesterday, the Washington Post (and subsequently other major news organizations) reported that President Trump, in the Oval Office last week, shared classified intelligence information with officials from the Russian government. This information, which was provided to the U.S. by an intelligence partner, was in regard to the ISIS terrorist organization. It was reportedly so sensitive that it hadn’t even been revealed to our allies in the War on Terror.

The media firestorm from this story has spread out in four different directions:

1. The inappropriateness of sharing such information with the Russians

The source of the intelligence, which has presumably infiltrated ISIS, did not give the U.S. permission to share the information. And though the source itself was not specifically revealed by Trump, the very nature of the intelligence runs the risk of exposing who and where it came from, thus putting that individual or group in extreme danger. Additionally, this inadvertent unmasking runs a risk of drying up other intel sources who might now decide that sharing such information with the United States isn’t such a great idea.

While Trump, as president, has the legal right to share classified intelligence with whomever he chooses (effectively declassifying it), his apparent lack of discretion on this matter is being referred to by some intelligence experts as a “red line” in the intel community.

2. The White House response

As is often the case with news stories detrimental to President Trump and his administration, the immediate response from the White House was one of denial (aka the “fake news” charge). In this case, national security adviser, H.R. McMaster (one the administration’s more credible voices), delivered a carefully worded statement to reporters, insisting that the story “as written” was false (not the story itself). He then specifically denied accusations that weren’t even part of the Washington Post piece.

Like clockwork, Sean Hannity and the rest of Trump’s unofficial surrogates in the pro-Trump media discarded the media narrative as a fabrication, only to have the president take to the Twitter the next morning to essentially validate the original story (at least its major components) and undercut his defenders.

3. The government’s ongoing problem with leaks

Someone obviously leaked the Trump mishap to the Washington Post. It likely came from an individual inside the U.S. intelligence community, who would have been alerted to what Trump had told the Russians, as part of a risk assessment initiative to see what kind of damage the president’s intel-sharing had caused.

Leaking has been a continual problem throughout Mr. Trump’s first few months in office.

4. The hypocrisy of news organizations

To most people, a president revealing sensitive, classified information to a rival government would be a big story. And the national political media is treating it as such. But as many on the Right have pointed out, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did something arguably worse by storing top-level classified information on a private, unsecured email-server, thus exposing it to even garden-variety hackers from any country or government.

Yet the media, as a whole, had a much harder time recognizing the dangers that Clinton had created with her indiscretions. Clinton didn’t even have the legal right to declassify such information intentionally, let alone store it privately. And the only thing that kept her from federal prosecution was then F.B.I. Director James Comey deciding that she was too dense to know that what she was doing was against the law.

Competing Narratives

Which of the four angles of this story you’re most interested in probably depends on where you fall politically. If you lean to the left, there’s a pretty good chance that you think Trump’s recklessness and the administration’s conflicting explanations are the key issues. If you lean to the right, you probably see the government leaks and the media hypocrisy as the major headlines. Cable news channels and the Internet are certainly reflecting this divide right now.

And sadly, if Hillary Clinton were the president, and the same incident were playing out, these reactions would very likely be reversed.

Unfortunately, this is how disturbingly tribal and unprincipled our politics have become. We’re at a point where national security, government integrity, and media credibility are only important to us when the other side is undermining them.

When a presidential administration commits a major screw-up, it should matter to Americans…regardless of political party. If top news-organizations are dishonest and unfair, it should matter to Americans…regardless if you’re in their target audience.

When contempt for our political foes dictates whether or not we choose to hold some of our nation’s most important institutions accountable, the country loses.