Donald Trump made the worst mistake of his presidency a few days ago. It involved the Russians, but not in the context that first comes to mind for many.
The matter was quickly eclipsed by other news -- breathless reporting about whether the president did or did not meddle in an FBI probe of short-lived Trump aide Michael Flynn. But it is this earlier episode that we think raises a more legitimate question about the president's capacity to lead.
The incident was reported by the Washington Post Monday evening. It emanated from a meeting Trump held with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister at the White House last week.
The Post reported that Trump discussed intelligence with the Russians regarding ISIS threats to civil aviation -- specifically development of laptop bombs as well as threats still undisclosed to the public. Both nations have a shared interest in countering this threat of course; that is not the issue.
Rather the Post reported that in the course of the discussion Trump revealed details of the intelligence -- which was so sensitive that it has not been shared with many western allies -- that probably allowed the Russians to identify the source. The Russians, pals that they are with Syria and Iran, are likely to share that information in a manner that compromises the infiltration and shuts down the flow of information.
The White House moved quickly to try to swat the story. They sent National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to a hastily arranged press briefing. He said the Post story "as reported is false." He said the president did not reveal intelligence sources or methods.
But this was semantics. The information Trump revealed was so sensitive that it was scrubbed from classified transcripts of the meeting that are themselves distributed to a very restricted group of officials. Worse, the ever-narcissistic Trump was boasting to the Russians during the meeting about what "great intel" he gets. If it was in this context that Trump dropped the ball, it is proof he's in over his head.
In what has become a pattern, Trump proceeded Tuesday morning to chop the legs out from underneath McMaster. Trump tweeted that he has the "absolute right" to share "facts relating to terrorism and airline safety." He said he gave information to the Russians for "humanitarian reasons," adding, "I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."
Good luck with that. Consider that also on Monday a story emerged about a Nazi-style crematorium operated by Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a Russian proxy dictator. Assad is said to have executed more than 10,000 political opponents at the prison where the crematorium is located with the full support of his Russian and Iranian allies. These are the people Trump expects to assist us? They are terrorists themselves.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, whom we greatly respect, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He put it well when he said in the wake of the Washington Post disclosure that the Trump White House is "in a downward spiral" and "they've got to figure out a way to come to grips â ¦". Trump with his tweets made things worse, not better, after Corker issued that sober assessment.
Terrorism is not a threat any western nation can afford to take lightly. And we can't afford a president who is such a buffoon that he doesn't understand how the cards are laid. We suspect Corker's comments reflect broadly growing doubts among congressional Republicans about whether Trump has what it takes to defend the country. We share those doubts.