The Trump presidency has been frustrating, amongst other reasons, because it has ratcheted up partisan tribalism that might have been thought to reach its peak years ago. If there is nothing he can do that won't cause his opponents' heads to explode, there is also seemingly nothing he can do that would suspend his supporters' excuses and justifications.
Both are dangerous because neither allows the president to be corrected or encourages him to correct himself when he errs.
That's not to say both sides are always equally wrong. This week, it is Trump's most unswerving supporters who need a reality check.
Both Trump's casual disclosures of classified information to Russian officials, and his reported request that the FBI lay off its investigation of Gen. Mike Flynn, were serious misdeeds. The president seems not to recognize this. For him, statesmanship, governing and even any sort of accountability beyond ratings and profits is brand new. A Republican Party and a conservative movement that cares about the country needs to do its best to make sure Trump understands this. He is their leader whether they like it or not.
When the Washington Post reported that Trump shared classified information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during a meeting in the White House, some people reflexively wrote it off as "fake news." They should, instead, have paid careful attention to White House damage control, because it has pointedly failed to include any denial of the most important part of the report.
When questioned in detail on Tuesday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, while saying the president had done nothing inappropriate, nevertheless appeared to confirm the central revelation of the Washington Post scoop, that Trump told Russian officials the name of the Islamic State city where a terrorist threat to aviation security had been identified. Trump, in defense of his actions on Twitter, also did not deny divulging this information, which is apparently so sensitive that the Post's editors refused to print it out of concern for national security.
Russia's world-class intelligence capabilities mean that even this small piece of information could be used to identify the source. This could put that source in peril and discourage others from helping the side of good for fear of betrayal.
The uncontradicted allegation against Trump, combined with McMaster's statement Tuesday that he had not even been briefed on the source of the information, implies that the president simply said too much out of carelessness or bravado. In other words, he was probably boasting that America's tremendous intelligence resources were yuge. This apparent breach was neither a considered sop for the Russians, something that might be appropriate and even useful in some cases, nor a thought-out collaboration on terrorism.
When the intelligence services raise red flags like this over something seemingly so mundane such as the name of a city, it is clear sign Trump disclosed information that should have been kept from outsiders. When those outsiders are Russians, allies of Iran and immensely unhelpful in Syria, the stakes are high.
According to the New York Times, this incident could compromise America's intelligence relationship with Israel, reportedly the source of the information. If Trump's loose lips lead one of the world's most effective intelligence services to stop sharing its findings with us, or merely to be more sparing with details vital to our national security, this country's citizens are placed in greater danger.
The legality of Trump's action is not at issue. As president, he may share almost any classified information with whomever he chooses. But the legal bar is lower than the threshold of wisdom, probity or safety. The president's legal right to ladle out sensitive information sloppily imposes on him a greater responsibility not to do so. Careless revelations that could get an intelligence agent killed, or by posing that threat could make others less likely to help us, are derelictions of duty.
As for the revelations of Trump trying to influence the FBI investigation, the facts are still hazy. The New York Times reported that Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to let go of its investigation of the former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who was a subject of the bureau's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
If the Comey memos, as reported, are accurate, the president was impeding a high-level investigation. Flynn being "a good guy," as both the president and Comey reportedly described him, does not bear on the investigation into whether he broke the law. Since Trump has power over the FBI, a request or suggestion that an investigation be dropped is an abuse of power.
Trump is president. His detractors have a long way to go to get over this fact. But the man himself seems slow to absorb its gravity, too.
When he was merely a billionaire celebrity real estate developer he could afford to throw around his weight or be indiscreet. But that epoch ended, or should have, on election night, Nov. 8. Now Trump has access to all kinds of information that must be kept secret in the national interest. now his every word carries immense clout, and he must not use that clout for personal advantage.
The opportunism of Democrats and the hysteria of a biased media are important, for sure, but they are ultimately second-degree stories. The prime story is the propriety and prudence of Trump's actions. Republicans, conservatives, and patriots of all stripes, who are rightly aware and outraged by those secondary stories, need to remember that their principal concern should be the main event.