White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. 
Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

On protecting classified information, Sanders’ defense falls short

One of the core elements of the White House’s Rob Porter controversy is a question about national security: the former staff secretary had day-to-day access to highly sensitive, classified materials, despite not having a permanent security clearance. While Team Trump was entrusting Porter with secrets, one of Porter’s ex-wives was warning Team Trump he was susceptible to blackmail.

With this in mind, NBC News’ Kristen Welker had an important exchange yesterday with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

WELKER: Can you guarantee that you are protecting classified information given that you have someone like Rob Porter who didn’t have a permanent security clearance to access classified information?

SANDERS: I think we’re doing and taking every step we can to protect classified information. I mean, frankly, if you guys have such concern with classified information, there’s plenty of it that’s leaked out of the Hill, that’s leaked out of other communities well beyond the White House walls. If you guys have real concerns about leaking out classified information, look around this room. You guys are the ones that publish classified information and put national security at risk that doesn’t come from this White House.

WELKER: Is this White House jeopardizing national security?

SANDERS: We take every precaution possible to protect classified information and certainly to protect national security. It’s the president’s number-one priority, is protecting the citizens of this country. It’s why we spend every single day doing everything we can to do that. And I think if anyone is publishing or putting out, publicly, classified information, it’s members of the press, not the White House.

As responses go, this is a mess, and given the seriousness of the underlying issue, it’s a problem that deserves special scrutiny.

Right off the bat, Sanders’ reply seems oddly detached from her own boss’ record. It was last May, for example, that we learned Donald Trump, for reasons that remain unclear, decided to share highly classified intelligence with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting that happened at Vladimir Putin’s request.

More recently, the president ignored his own FBI and took the unprecedented step of declassifying misleading information intended to help advance Republican criticisms of federal law enforcement.

The White House is “taking every step we can to protect classified information”? Evidently, not.

But its Sanders’ attempts to turn the controversy around, and blame news organizations for mishandling classified materials, that really rankles. The Washington Post had a good explanation for why the press secretary’s talking point falls short.

The media does indeed sometimes publish classified material when that material is newsworthy and almost always after the government has been allowed to weigh in on those elements of the material that might endanger national security. Administrations are generally frustrated by leaks and often claim (usually without justification) that innocent lives are put at risk when leaks occur.

Sanders’s response is a particularly weird example of whataboutism. If our classified material gets out, well, whatabout your releasing classified material? she seems to be saying. As though the media either has no space to be critical of the White House mishandling classified documents or, well, everybody’s doing it.

I realize the Porter controversy has jolted Trump World in ways it wasn’t prepared for. But if Sanders’ argument is the best the White House has come up with on the issue of mishandling classified materials, the president and his team have a real problem on its hands.