Shortly after the Washington Post’s devastating report that President Trump “revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador” and “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State,” Republicans in Congress began to weigh in. “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information but the president does have the right to do that,” insisted Senator John McCain. “It’s no longer classified the minute he utters it,” explained Senator Jim Risch.
The argument was eerily familiar. Trump, as his supporters pointed out, had a legal right to fire FBI Director James Comey. Likewise, Trump’s decision to hold on to his vast and non-transparent business empire, the value of which he can increase through his powers as president. (“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he exulted.) That is true, and the legality Trump enjoys extends much farther than even his supporters have suggested. Since the president can pardon anybody, probably including himself, he can operate with hardly any legal restraint at all.
The president has massive amounts of leeway because the system is set up with the unstated presumption that the president is a responsible person who will act in a broadly legitimate, competent fashion. Trump’s brief tenure in office so far has supplied a constant stream of evidence that this does not apply. Fears that Trump could not be trusted with classified intelligence have circulated among allies and the American intelligence community since his election. “U.S. officials and analysts fear other countries will hesitate to share information with a Kremlin-friendly Trump administration,” reported Politico’s Nahal Toosi in January. “Israeli intelligence officials are concerned that the exposure of classified information to their American counterparts under a Trump administration could lead to their being leaked to Russia and onward to Iran,” reported Ha’aretz that same month.” Now those fears have been vindicated. As one former senior intelligence official tells conservative Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes, “sharing of another country’s intel w/o permission is one of the brightest red lines in the intel world.”