Trump Yanks The Rug Out From Under His Defenders In Spectacular Fashion

Olivier Douliery/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Views

Supporters and surrogates of President Donald Trump woke up Tuesday morning to another kick in the teeth.

After working overtime Monday to quell a political firestorm ignited by reports that the President disclosed highly classified information to senior Russian diplomats, Trump promptly threw everyone who came to his defense under the bus, acknowledging in a pair of tweets that he shared “facts” with his visitors from the Kremlin.

Adding insult to injury, Trump insisted he had “the absolute right to do” so.

The President has made a habit of sending his backers out to defend him on TV and in the press, then publicly—even defiantly—undermining their explanations and denials. The way Trump blew up the emerging White House narrative on just what went down in the Oval Office last week is almost an exact echo of the handling of the abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey, which Trump’s communications staff originally attributed to a recommendation from the deputy attorney general. The President took unilateral credit for the decision days later.

“He can’t stand thinking that either he’s in the wrong, as in this case, or that somebody else was in charge of a major move, as was the case with the Comey firing,” Bruce Miroff, a presidential historian at the University of Albany, told TPM.

“He’s the man in charge,” Miroff continued. “He just steps all over any attempt to establish credibility for his spokespeople by interjecting and serving his own ego with statements, which are devastating.”

The Washington Post reported late Monday that Trump shared highly classified information related to an Islamic State threat during a meeting last week with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The United States was not authorized to share the information, which was obtained from a U.S. intelligence partner, according to the Post and subsequent reports in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, CNN and Reuters.

As the fallout hit, the White House dispatched rarely-seen, senior members of the President’s national security staff to defend him.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proclaimed that Trump never divulged “intelligence sources or methods”—a claim that was not alleged in the reporting on the meeting.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Dina Powell called the Post story “false,” a claim that McMaster later echoed in a terse, minute-long statement delivered from the White House driveway as dusk fell over the West Wing.

“Going on the record should outweigh the anonymous sources. I was in the room,” McMaster said. “It didn’t happen.”

Those denials proved sufficient for supporters of the administration, who criticized the reports as oversold and part of an ongoing attempt to undermine the President.

“Deep State Leaks Highly Classified Info To Washington Post To Smear President Trump,” blared the headline at Breitbart News, on a story parroting the President’s argument that leaks are worse than the news contained in them.

On Fox News, conservative pundit Laura Ingraham criticized the Post for not speaking to the White House principals present at the meeting, even though McMaster provided comment for the story.

“It’s not like he did something that was illegal,” Fox pundit Chris Stirewalt weighed in later in the evening.

With few exceptions, GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill were similarly reluctant to criticize the President.

“He has the ability to declassify anything at any time without any process. So it’s no longer classified the minute he utters it,” Sen. James Risch (R-ID) said, while many other Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said they needed to verify that the story was true before commenting.

Trump, who is notoriously sensitive to negative press coverage, waited only 12 hours to seize ownership of the story.

“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 to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

Trump’s burning of national security staffers like McMaster, who were kept out of the fray during the outcry over Comey’s sudden firing, leaves him with a shrinking number of surrogates able or willing to credibly defend the administration’s position.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway has made few TV appearances after her gaffe about Trump’s use of “alternative facts,” but she was sent out last week to defend Comey’s dismissal.

Like Vice President Mike Pence, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Conway said that Comey was fired in response to a memo in which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein denounced the former FBI director’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Trump torpedoed that narrative in an NBC interview where he said he planned to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s recommendation, and that when he decided to do so he was thinking about the ongoing FBI probe into whether his campaign staff colluded with Russian operatives who interfered in the U.S. election.

“He seems to be sort of constantly shifting what his justifications are; he tries one thing and when it doesn’t work he tries something else,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told TPM. “The problem with that is he’s using up the credibility of a number of people inside the White House who’ve spent a lifetime building up their credibility. And they seem willing to be putting that on the line for somebody who doesn’t back them up.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

LIKE US ON FACEBOOK