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Here’s what I saw unfold in the media during the 24 hours from Monday to Tuesday afternoon (May 15-16).
On Monday, I saw blaring headlines throughout the day on Twitter about how Trump had betrayed some “highly-classified” intelligence secrets to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting last week. I was busy and paid little attention to this news, but I figured Trump must have committed one of his hallmark impetuous faux-pas involving some massive security breach, given the hysterical tone of the coverage.
I awoke Tuesday to read the stories in the New York Times (NYT), and the Washington Post (WaPo), sourced to anonymous “current and former government officials,” recounting that Trump had told the Russians a big secret—the NYT did not specify what, but WaPo identified it as an “Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.” As both papers acknowledge—though WaPo makes the irrelevant point that it would be illegal “for almost anyone in government”—Trump, as president, did nothing illegal in telling the Russians this, and, according to the NYT’s own sources, and to National Security advisor Lt. Gen. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—the only people cited who were actually in the room—Trump “discussed the contents of the intelligence, but not the sources and methods used to collect it.”
Per McMaster: “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation. At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” Neither of the articles, and no one cited in them, disputed this. Per WaPo: “He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances.”
So far, I was seeing nothing to break a sweat over. Is there some problem with notifying Russia—or anyone else, for that matter—of an Islamic State threat to blow up civilian aircraft with laptop bombs? Is the idea that we’re supposed to sit back and let it happen? What sane person wouldn’t be glad this warning was given to Russia, and wouldn’t want Russia to give it to us if the circumstances were reversed? Is this not a routine exchange of threat information in a closed principals’ meeting?
Besides, was there really any great secret here? I had seen a number of reports in the last few weeks that the government was “likely to expand [the] airline laptop ban” and that “U.S. Intelligence and Law Enforcement Agencies believe ISIS” can now “effectively conceal explosives in laptops and other electronic devices.” I’m going to take a wild guess and conjecture that, if ISIS were planning something with laptops on airplanes, the group would have read the same reports and figured out that someone was on to them. So that cat was out of the bag before Trump said anything to Lavrov. And it was not Trump, but the media, who revealed knowledge of this plot publicly, before and after the Lavrov meeting!
No, the big “alarming” deal here wasn’t that Trump revealed the ISIS plot, but that knowledge of it was based on information provided by “a Middle Eastern ally that closely guards its own secrets,” and was shared “without the express permission of the ally who provided it.” Trump committed a “breach of espionage etiquette.”
There was no accusation that Trump said who that ally was, or even that “the intelligence came from a Middle Eastern ally or precisely how it was gathered.” So the only way, this Tuesday morning, we and the Russians knew that some “ally” was involved was because, not Donald Trump, but some anonymous “officials,” through the NYT and WaPo, revealed it to the whole wide world.
Only in the more “granular” detail in the coverage could I find the sinful “breach of etiquette” that Trump supposedly committed, the one and only specific thing Trump was accused of revealing that he shouldn’t have: “the city in Syria where the ally picked up the information about the plot.” Supposedly, by naming the city, Trump gave Russia an “important clue about the source of the information,” and raised “the fear” that, with the name of that city, Russia “could disrupt the ally’s espionage efforts” against ISIS. [my italics]
Another bunch of woulds, coulds, and fears that. After reading this, even I was flabbergasted at how thin this gruel was——and how desperately the media and politicians were trying to make a meal out of it. Republican Bob Corker was quoted about how “compromise[ing] a source is something you just don’t do,” and Democrat Mark Warner about how “inexcusable” it is to “risk sources and methods,” despite the fact that the reports themselves indicate Trump did neither of those things. If it was so terrible for Trump to name a city in Syria to the Russian Foreign Minister in a private meeting, how terrible was it for the media to publicly inform ISIS that they might be harboring a spy in a Syrian city?
In other words, this coverage is another stream of insinuations about what Trump kinda, sorta, but actually didn’t—but the articles themselves did—do.
As Marcy Wheeler aptly put it:
So multiple people learned of this event, and went out and leaked it (which is illegal to do for most anyone besides the President, the WaPo helpfully notes), not just with the WaPo’s two reporters, but with reporters from Buzzfeed, NYT, WSJ, and more. They leaked it to reporters who they presumably knew would then report it, alerting the frustrated ally that Trump had shared the information, which is a blow to that relationship, and also alerting the frustrated ally that they then proceeded to go leak it more.
And it’s all based on the blithe assumption that Trump telling Russia about dangers to civilian aircraft is worse than the American media itself informing ISIS about a spy in their midst.
It seemed obvious to me that its main purpose or these stories was to continue fomenting antagonism with Russia, and to perpetuate the notion, taken up enthusiastically and disturbingly by liberals, that the main problem with the omni-incompetent Donald Trump is that he is too friendly with Russia.
Combined with the other fear-mongering article about the North Korean missile test featured on the NYT, I thought media project for the day was to keep the war drums beating, and I was prompted to begin writing something about that.
Then I noticed (thanks to a tweet by Max Blunenthal) that Alan Dershowitz had called the Trump-betrayed-ally’s-secrets-to-Russia story “the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president.” It had been evident to me, in reading the coverage, that there was only one “Middle Eastern ally” (or ally of any region) which has the chutzpah to “warn” the United States “it would cut off access to…sensitive information”—while itself stealing, with impunity, America’s most closely-guarded secrets. As Newsweek reported in 2014: “Israel has been caught carrying out aggressive espionage operations against American targets for decades… They just don’t get arrested very often.” (Also see here, here, and here). There is only one ally about whose “compromise” Republicans and Democrats would be so unanimously concerned, and certainly only one who would have prompted the ridiculous charge by Dershowitz. And within an hour, the NYT confirmed, again via a “current and former American official,” that Israel was the ally in question, the source of the “secret intelligence.”
So now we have the American media explicitly revealing to Russia, ISIS, and the world, the supposedly key piece of information that Trump was being excoriated for even implying.
Now perhaps these “current and former American officials” who are leaking all this ultra-sensitive classified intelligence information are entirely neutral about, or even unsympathetic to, Israel; and perhaps they and the media outlets publicizing their leaks—a few hours after insisting that identifying the secret ally would harm it—put Israel’s name out because they are committed to letting the public know the truth, no matter whom it hurts. Or perhaps these officials and these media outlets are in fact supportive of Israel, and would only publicize information they know that Israel wants revealed (or at least has no objection to revealing). Everyone will have to decide, based on his/her understanding of American-Israeli political and media relations, which of those scenarios is more likely.
I think the latter. I also notice that, in the last week or so, there have been reports in the American and Israeli press that Netanyahu’s “honeymoon with Trump” has “ended abruptly,” that there have been “harsh exchanges” with Trump administration officials who told members of Netanyahu’s team, to their “utter shock,” that the Western Wall was “not your territory but rather part of the West Bank,” and that Netanyahu is now “wary” and increasingly mistrustful of Trump.
Now, to be clear: I do not think that Israel or Zionism has anything to fear from Donald Trump. I never thought that he was going to transform American foreign policy, to make it less interventionist or more focused on the concerns of Americans. But I also think Trump is an inconsistent and impetuous actor, capable of wild swings in policy that are perceived as dangerous even by those powerful interests who think they can keep him under control. I think that is becoming more obvious, and of greater concern to a larger swath of important players.
I suspect this betrayal-of-an-ally-to-Russia story, and the frantic news cycle it has generated, means that Israel is showing its concern. And that is bad news for Donald Trump. Israel is a very powerful player, with its hooks embedded throughout the Deep State apparatus. The frantic news cycle that followed—with another blaring headline a few hours later about how Trump asked Comey to stop the Flynn investigation, a spate of articles about how Trump is a criminal president who might have obstructed justice and betrayed his oath, and an announcement that the impeachment clock is running—means that big guns are blazing, and Trump is now in another realm of trouble.
Three days ago, I endorsed the point, made by Musa Al-Gharbi and others, that it would be virtually impossible for Trump to be impeached. I found Robert Parry’s scenario of a “soft coup” by sectors of the intelligence apparatus very unlikely. Given the make-up of Congress, it would only happen if the Republicans turned against him en masse, and they would only do that if his inconsistency and incompetence were seriously undermining their agenda (as those faults well might). But, since their legislative agenda is going to be so unpopular, they must be able to portray any impeachment as a bi-partisan project of national urgency.
Russiagate has been cultivated by the Democrats and their confected #Resistance to provide a rationale for Republicans to install a more stable and predictable Republican president who will color within the established partisan lines, and with whom the Democrats can more effectively plan wars and Grand-Bargain away Social Security and Medicare. But Russiagate has not yet gained enough traction with Republican congresscritters, who would face a revolt of their Trump voters against any acquiescence to an impeachment driven by Nancy Pelosi, vagina-hatted protestors, and Steven Colbert. If, however, impeachment becomes driven by concern for our betrayed Middle Eastern ally; if Dershowitz is right that “The demographics are clear. Republicans now support Israel much more strongly than Democrats”; and if Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus take the outstretched hands of concerned constitution- and FBI-loving liberals, then the prospects improve dramatically. (Though you know this to be true, don’t forget: It’s Russia that interferes too much in American politics.)
The Democratic Party and the #Resistance are not going to impeach Donald Trump. The Democratic and Republican Parties can and will if they want to. And, as they never cease proclaiming, what Israel wants, they want.
Fast and furiously, in the course of a single news cycle, the game has changed: Donald Trump has been accused of betraying Israel. Impeachment is possible.