- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Shortly after three senior Trump administration officials attempted to rebut the “Trump Mishandled Classified Material’” story with on-the-record denials, the following consensus narrative emerged from the commentariat: the officials, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell were issuing a non-denial denial that artfully side-stepped the central thrust of the original Washington Post story (now confirmed by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other outlets).
The conventional narrative went something like this. McMaster vigorously denied things that were not really in the original story with cleverly lawyered language that only raised suspicions about the real underlying truth. These suspicions were raised to new heights when President Donald Trump tweeted out a defense of what he said that — the conventional narrative claimed — undercut McMaster’s careful account.
This version of events is not beyond the realm of imagination, since it repeats in structural form what happened last week with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey: the president does something that surprises, even shocks; the White House puts out a convenient explanation that is hard to believe but, if true, undermines the critique of the president; and then the president undermines his own defense effort by delivering a totally different account that seems to confirm the worst interpretations of the original action.
Based on the emails I am getting, a lot of smart people think it has just happened again, and perhaps when all the dust has settled that is what we will learn actually happened. But that is not how I read the White House pushback, at least not so far.
To explain, let’s be clear about what was alleged and how the White House pushed back:
- The original Post story claimed that the president shared classified information in an inappropriate way that put at risk sources and methods.
- On Monday, McMaster confirmed the non-controversial aspects of the story — that the president talked to his Russian guests about terrorist threats — and rebutted the controversial aspects: that sources and methods were compromised. The operative bits of his Monday statement deserve to be quoted in full: “There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”
- On Tuesday, McMaster went further, directly contradicting those who claimed that his earlier denial was tantamount to a confirmation that the president had erred because that statement deflected attention to unimportant details. Far from focusing on the trivial, McMaster focused once again on the essential, claiming the president shared nothing sensitive or inappropriate. Moreover, none of the three top staff in the room for the meeting thought the president had erred.
In the Tuesday press conference, McMaster was asked the crucial follow-up question: if the President did nothing inappropriate, why did Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert engage in damage control by calling up the intelligence agencies to warn them about what had been released? McMaster’s response was to double down on his original claim: he did not know why Bossert made those calls and neither he, nor Tillerson, nor Powell, thought there was anything inappropriate in what the president had shared.
McMaster further pre-butted another likely follow-up question: If it was not sensitive, why did the White House argue so strenuously with the Post not to publish their original story? McMaster’s answer: because in developing the story, the Post had done additional reporting that generated new details that were not shared with the Russians but, if made public, would in fact result in a dangerous release of classified material.
My interpretation of the White House push-back is a much-higher-stakes scenario than the conventional narrative. My version has the president’s most-respected staffers and principals — the ones that are least likely to lie out of some long-standing and misguided loyalty to the Trumpist cause — forcefully denying some of the most important aspects of a story that has now been reported multiple times based on a large number of (admittedly anonymous) sources.
The Post story said the president put at risk sources and methods. That his key staff immediately realized they had this vulnerability. That accordingly they engaged in a desperate attempt to undo the president’s damage. By contrast, McMaster claimed that the president did not put sources and methods at risk. That he did not do anything inappropriate. And that the most experienced staff in the meeting did not think otherwise.
The conventional narrative makes this just about spin in which the guilty party attempts to distract attention by pettifogging trivial details. The conventional narrative quickly reaches a very unsavory conclusion: the president’s staff are misdirecting the public to protect the president.
As I read the White House push-back, however, it appears they are attempting something much bigger and more difficult: they are claiming the central allegations of the Post story are false. If they are factually incorrect in those claims, that goes well beyond misdirection.
My counternarrative does not end the matter. On the contrary, there are lots more questions to be asked: Why did Bossert do damage control? When will the full transcript be released (something that should be easy to do if nothing sensitive or inappropriate transpired)? Will the director of national intelligence and director of the CIA back the White House account on the record? And so on.
Unfortunately for the White House, this story has legs. And if new revelations undermine the White House pushback, the consequences for all involved will be much graver.
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