The Daily 202: Trump’s Chaotic White House Once Again Makes A Bad Story Worse

This time it did not even take 24 hours for Donald Trump to throw his staffers under the bus and contradict their denials.

The president revealed highly classified (code word) information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office meeting last week, potentially endangering a coveted intelligence asset, compromising a crucial alliance and undermining the war effort against the Islamic State.

After the Washington Post broke the story, senior White House aides quickly denied it. "I was in the room. It didn't happen," said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. "This story is false," added Dina Powell, his deputy.

Then, on Twitter Tuesday morning, Trump essentially acknowledged that the Post's reporting is accurate, defended his decision to share the information and complained about the leak that it allowed what he'd done to get out.

As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017 terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017

I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017

This feels like a replay of last week, when the president acknowledged that the FBI's Russia probe was on his mind as he decided to fire James Comey and confessed that he had made up his mind before receiving a recommendation from the deputy attorney general. That undercut every White House talking point. Making matters worse, Trump said last Friday that his aides should not be expected to be accurate all the time and declined to express confidence in his press secretary.

• The already dysfunctional West Wing has plunged deeper into a state of crisis. Here are some vignettes from Monday night that show just how messy everything has become:

From the New York Times' Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt: "Before the Post's article was published, its impending publication set off a mild panic among White House staff members, with the press secretary, Sean Spicer; the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and the communications director, Mike Dubke, summoned to the Oval Office in the middle of the afternoon. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and one of his advisers, was not in the meeting. But internally, Mr. Kushner criticized Mr. Spicer, who has been the target of his ire over bad publicity for the president since Mr. Trump fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, last week."

From the Associated Press's Jill Colvin and Catherine Lucey: "Reporters started gathering in the hallway outside Spicer's office right after the Post story broke. As the group grew to more than 20 people, press aides walked silently by as journalists asked for more information. Soon, three of the four TV channels being played in the press area were reporting the Post story. . . . McMaster, who would later deliver a televised denial, stumbled into the crowd of journalists as he walked through the West Wing. 'This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,' he said, nervously, as he was pushed for information. 'I'm leaving. I'm leaving.' "

From BuzzFeed's White House correspondent:

Per @TreyYingst, Bannon, Mike Dubke, Sarah Sanders and Spicer walked into cabinet room just now. They did not look happy.

— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) May 15, 2017

Can now hear yelling coming from room where officials are.

— Adrian Carrasquillo (@Carrasquillo) May 15, 2017

Sarah H. Sanders told reporters she didn't know anything about yelling.

— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) May 15, 2017

From NBC News's Hallie Jackson: "A smaller group of reporters began trickling back toward Spicer's office about 7:30 p.m. Monday . . . An aide who was walking by deflected an inquiry about the Post piece, saying: 'I'm dealing with other dumpster fires.' . . . (Sarah Huckabee) Sanders then emerged from the West Wing, saying: 'We're not answering any other questions right now, so you guys can clear this hallway.' Asked whether McMaster or anyone else would clarify matters, she repeated: 'Tonight, we are not doing any other questions. At this moment.' What about Tuesday, the reporters asked - would McMaster still brief the media about the president's foreign trip, as previously planned? Raising her voice to be heard over the din, Sanders replied: 'Guys. I've said all we're going to say!'"

• "Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening," Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. "The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating . . . a worrisome environment."

• In an interview with Bloomberg TV Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "We could do with a little less drama from the White House." With characteristic understatement, he added: "I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we're trying to accomplish and less time on other things."

• GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Marine veteran, called for the White House to turn over transcripts of Trump's meeting with the Russians to Congress.

For the purpose of transparency, the White House should share a transcript of the meeting with the House and Senate intelligence committees.

— Rep. Mike Gallagher (@RepGallagher) May 16, 2017

Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.) joined him.

The administration should promptly share with Congress, in a classified setting, the precise details of the president's meeting.

— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 16, 2017

Democrats are certain to amplify this. The big question driving today is: How many more Republicans will follow?

• Other outlets confirmed The Post's reporting Monday night, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN and Reuters. One U.S. official told BuzzFeed that, "It's far worse than what has already been reported."

• Bigger picture, Trump's disclosure to the Russians is part a pattern of poor judgment.

Let's step back for a second and ponder why Trump thought it was a good idea to give an audience to two leaders from an adversary of the United States, who the intelligence agencies believe meddled in last year's presidential election. The FBI continues to probe possible connections between Trump associates and the Russian government. So are multiple congressional committees. Adding insult to injury, Trump scheduled this meeting for the morning after he axed Comey.

Not only that, Trump welcomed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — a key figure in the earlier Russia controversies — to the meeting. Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had to resign because of fallout from his contacts with Kislyak and misleading statements about what he'd said. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from matters related to the FBI's Russia investigation after it emerged he met and spoke with Kislyak, despite denying any contact with Russian officials while under oath during his confirmation hearing. Any conventional president would avoid Kislyak like the plague. Trump welcomed him with open arms.

Why was a photographer for a Russian state-owned news agency allowed into the Oval Office for such a sensitive meeting, a level of access that former U.S. intelligence officials say allowed for a potential security breach? No U.S. news organizations were allowed for any part of the meeting.

Once he welcomed the Russia delegation into his inner-sanctum, why wouldn't Trump watch his words more carefully? Russia is propping up Bashar Assad and meddling in Europe.

• The president does not have a very good record of handling sensitive information since taking office. You might recall that in February, before Flynn was fired, Trump turned the terrace at his Mar-a-Lago club into an open-air situation room. It was Saturday night, and the Palm Beach club was packed. At one table, the president sat with the leader of Japan discussing how to respond to a North Korea missile test in view of random patrons. "While waiters came and went — and while one club member snapped photos — the two leaders reviewed documents by the light of an aide's cellphone," the Post's David Fahrenthold and Karen DeYoung reported at the time.

Defense Secretary James Mattis' private phone number was just publicly exposed because Trump's longtime body guard didn't follow basic operational security protocols. A photograph of him walking with the president showed him holding a stack of papers. On the outside was a yellow sticky note that said "Jim, Mad Dog, Mattis" and had his cell written out underneath.

• Some of these amateur mistakes are the result of Trump's lack of experience. He is the first president in U.S. history with no prior political or military experience.

Another part of the problem is that he is unwilling to prepare. From the Post's Russia scoop Monday night: "U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders, but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points - and often ignores those."

But the biggest issue stems from the president's compulsive need to impress people by showing off what he knows. In his meeting with Lavrov, Trump went off script and began to boast about his inside knowledge of a looming threat. "I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day," the president said, an official with knowledge of the exchange told the Post.

"He doesn't really know any boundaries. He doesn't think in those terms," one adviser who often speaks to the president told Politico. "He doesn't sometimes realize the implications of what he's saying. I don't think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information."

• Trump's relationship with the intelligence community will also become even more tenuous after this incident. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called Monday night's news a "slap in the face to the intel community."

Trump has publicly questioned the quality of the intelligence the agencies produce, compared them to Nazi Germany, said he's too smart for their briefings and talked about the inauguration crowd size in front of the CIA's sacred wall of honor. "Since getting elected, the president has had a track record of questioning, worrying, and even directly upsetting, the thousands of men and women who collect and analyze the nation's top secrets," Amber Phillips notes.

• Some conservative thought leaders are expressing serious concerns:

"The idea that Trump — with his irrepressible need to boast to the point of narcissistic incontinence combined with his lackadaisical approach to the nuts-and-bolts demands of the job — somehow just let something slip is utterly and completely believable," writes National Review's Jonah Goldberg.

"The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man," the New York Times' David Brooks writes. "We've got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar. 'We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,' David Roberts writes in Vox. 'It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there's nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?' And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country."

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