Did Trump blurt out info about a secret nuclear weapons program?

Trump has demonstrated an unnerving willingness to recklessly blurt out sensitive national security information, but the latest example is still stunning.
Image: Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Aug. 27, 2018.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

It's difficult to choose the single most astonishing thing Donald Trump told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, but among my personal favorites was the president's willingness to boast about a secret nuclear weapons program.

In the midst of reflecting upon how close the United States had come in 2017 to war with North Korea, Trump revealed: "I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven't even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody — what we have is incredible."

The Post's article on this added that Woodward's sources "later confirmed that the U.S. military had a secret new weapons system, but they would not provide details, and that the people were surprised Trump had disclosed it."

Well, yes, I imagine they were surprised that the sitting American president would disclose sensitive national security information -- in the process, risking a new global arms race with China and Russia -- to a prominent journalist for no apparent reason.

But perhaps these national security insiders shouldn't have been too surprised, since Trump has demonstrated an unnerving willingness to recklessly blurt out sensitive national security information throughout his presidency. It's happened so many times that late last year, I was able to put together a Top 10 examples of the phenomenon, which it's apparently time to update:

10. In May 2017, Trump had a chat with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in which the Republican shared information about dispatching two nuclear submarines off the coast of the Korean peninsula. By one account, Pentagon officials were "in shock" over Trump's willingness to share such information. "We never talk about subs!" three officials told BuzzFeed News, referring to the military's belief that keeping submarines' movements secret is key to their mission.

9. In September 2019, during a photo-op at an event along the U.S./Mexico border, the president seemed eager to boast to reporters about detailed technological advancements in border security. It fell to Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the acting head of the Army Corps, to interject, "Sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that."

8. In July 2019, Trump had an unsecured conversation with U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, while the ambassador was in a Ukrainian restaurant within earshot of others, in which Trump sought information on Ukraine helping target the president's domestic political opponents. Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and a former chief of staff to the CIA director, said of the call, "The security ramifications are insane."

7. In February 2018, Trump ignored the pleas of many U.S. officials and recklessly declassified information from the so-called "Nunes Memo" in the hopes of advancing a partisan scheme.

6. In February 2017, Trump discussed sensitive details about North Korea's ballistic missile tests with the prime minister of Japan at a Mar-a-Lago dining area, in view of wealthy civilians/customers.

5. In early October 2019, Trump publicly discussed American nuclear weapons in Turkey, something U.S. officials have traditionally avoided disclosing and/or confirming.

4. In August 2019, Trump published a tweet about a failed Iranian launch, which included a detailed photo. As MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell reported, it wasn't long before observers expressed concern about Trump possibly releasing classified material.

3. In October 2019, Trump needlessly blurted out all kinds of tactical and operational details about the al-Baghdadi mission in Syria. As NBC News reported at the time, "A few of those colorful details were wrong. Many of the rest were either highly classified or tactically sensitive, and their disclosure by the president made intelligence and military officials cringe, according to current and former U.S. officials."

2. In 2020, Trump disclosed the existence of a secret nuclear weapons program to Bob Woodward, to the surprise of national security insiders.

1. Just four months into Trump's presidency, he welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak into the Oval Office – at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin – for a visit that was never fully explained.

It was in this meeting that Trump revealed highly classified information to his Russian guests for no apparent reason. The Washington Post reported at the time, "The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said."

The Wall Street Journal added, "According to one U.S. official, the information shared was highly sensitive and difficult to acquire and was considered extraordinarily valuable."

This list, incidentally, is not comprehensive. There are other examples.

Four years ago, Republicans and much of the American media justified their obsession with Hillary Clinton's email practices by saying she'd been careless with sensitive information -- and Americans needed to know their president could be trusted to be responsible with classified materials.

Four years later, the irony is rich.