Trump's Russia Leak May Have Been Legal – But It Was a Disgrace

Will the GOP finally stand up against Trump, hold him to account and declare him unfit to inhabit the White House?

"The president has plenary authority to do whatever the fuck he pleases with 'classified information,'" conservative pundit Ann Coulter told Politico. Credit: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty

Could President Trump's latest self-inflicted wound – blithely revealing spy secrets to the Russians inside the Oval Office – be the straw that breaks the elephant's back? With one outrage piling on another, month after month since Inauguration Day, you'd think Republicans in Congress – along with those, outside the administration, who self-exiled themselves in 2016 by supporting the Never Trump movement – would finally be ready to abandon the real-estate tycoon. Last week, after the abrupt dismissal of the FBI director investigating Trump's Russia ties, but before the news about the blown intelligence, some Senate Republicans were already beginning to edge away from the president.

But, then again, the GOP has stuck with Trump through mishap after scandal after outrage, so we may not have reached the tipping point yet.

Partly that's because Trump's most recent fiasco, in dealing with Russian visitors to the White House, isn't an impeachable offense, and it wasn't illegal. Eliot Cohen, a conservative former U.S. official, and leading Never Trumper, tweeted, "This is appalling. If accidental, it would be a firing offense for anyone else. If deliberate, it would be treason." But it's not treason, since under the law the president can unilaterally declassify any and all information gathered by the CIA, the National Security Agency and other agencies. As Ann Coulter so charmingly put it in an email to Politico, "The president has plenary authority to do whatever the fuck he pleases with 'classified information.'" That may be true. But it was ridiculously embarrassing, potentially devastating the U.S. war against the Islamic State and one more nail in the made-in-Russia political coffin for the president that's under construction.

So potentially devastating was Trump's disclosure to the Russians that top White House officials frantically tried to clean up the mess. Internal reports of the Trump-Russian conversation were purged of the improperly revealed details. Thomas P. Bossert, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, quickly dialed the CIA and the NSA to let them know about the breach, the Washington Post reported.

It was the latest flareup in the simmering Cold War between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, which erupted last year when 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian spy services had tried to help elect Trump. In response, Trump compared the agencies to "Nazi Germany," amid a stream of leaks, presumably from intelligence and law enforcement agencies, calculated to embarrass Trump – one of which led to the ouster of Gen. Mike Flynn. Last week, Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI who was leading an investigation into whether Trump had colluded with Russia during the campaign, with Trump telling NBC he did it because of "this Russia thing with Russia and Trump."

After the Post story was published – and quickly confirmed by The New York Times – the controversy descended into another episode of the chaos that has plagued Trump's White House since January. After several White House officials called the story "false" or issued non-denial denials, Trump himself took to Twitter Tuesday morning to cavalierly admit that, yeah, he'd done it. Claiming "humanitarian motives," Trump tweeted, "I wanted to share with Russia … facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety." The Post, apparently surprised to see its credibility affirmed so quickly in the president's own Twitter feed, called it "stunning confirmation" and "a move that contradicted his own White House team after it scrambled to deny the report."

"It never stops," a White House official told Politico. "Basically chaos at all times." Ned Price, a former CIA official, said on MSNBC that what Trump did "is really the nightmare scenario."

In the meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump did more than burble out to the Russians the fact that the United States is worried about laptops on planes, something that's been in the news for weeks and which led to laptop bans on flights from the Middle East and possibly Europe. Instead, he went further, giving the Russians specific information on a city in Syria where the threat was detected. From that information, a senior U.S. official told the Post, "Russia could identify our sources or techniques." A former intelligence official added, "I don't think it would be very hard for [Russian spy services] to figure this out."

Alarm and outrage erupted instantly in Washington, and continued to build, with Democrats in Congress, a raft of national security officials, intelligence experts and even some member of the Republican Party shaking their heads in astonishment. "I know a little bit more about it," said an exasperated Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The White House has got to do something to bring itself under control and in order. Obviously they're in a downward spiral right now, and they've got to find a way to come to grips with all that's happening."

It's pretty clear what happened. Trump, who seems utterly to lack any ability to control what comes out of his mouth, simply couldn't contain himself about what he'd learned from the President's Daily Brief, the espionage update he gets every day from the intelligence community. Unschooled, to say the least, in the ways of U.S. intelligence – having once declared that he doesn't need intelligence briefings because "I'm, like, a smart person" – it's likely that Trump doesn't know what not to reveal about what he's told. "He doesn't really know any boundaries," a Trump adviser told Politico. "He doesn't sometimes realize the implications of what he's saying."

Coming on the eve of Trump's first international trip, which will take him Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium, Trump underlined his sheer inability to cope with the rigors of being commander in chief. With each passing week, in phone call after phone call to world leaders – such as Australia's prime minister, the president of Mexico, the leader of Taiwan, Egypt's ruling general or Turkey's president – Trump has mangled foreign policy, insulted world leaders, created confusion and thrown up obstacles to whatever the United States is trying to achieve overseas. The secret intel that he revealed to the Russians reportedly came from an unnamed Middle East partner with a highly sensitive intelligence-sharing agreement with the United States, a relationship now cast into doubt or potentially dissolved because of Trump's indiscretion.

And then there's this: For a president who, as a candidate, campaigned by charging Hillary Clinton with mishandling classified information on her private email server, Trump's bumbling disclosure is particularly ironic.

In the early 1950s, during Sen. Joseph McCarthy's despicable rants about communists in the State Department in an historic congressional hearing, attorney Joseph Welch finally asked McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" It's long – long! – past time for Republicans to ask the same thing about Trump, after his attacks on "so-called judges," his unfounded accusation that President Obama wiretapped him, his attacks on the media as "the enemy of the American people," his tweetstorms, his near-constant lies about everything from the size of his inaugural crowd to the alleged involvement of Ted Cruz's father in the Kennedy assassination, and so much more. Now Trump has crossed yet another line. Will the GOP finally stand up against Trump's effrontery and lack of decency, hold him to account and declare him unfit to inhabit the White House?

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons says reports of Trump possibly leaking classified information about Islamic State militants to Russia is "reckless and unwise." Watch here.