A couple of years ago, Donald 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.
Of course, there are other security details "we never talk about," which the American president has a curious habit of just blurting out without any real caution or care. As the Washington Post explained:
Trump was asked about the security of [American nuclear weapons in Turkey], now that Turkey has gone against U.S. wishes by invading northern Syria after Trump ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region. He didn't explicitly confirm the weapons were there, but he went along with the premise, saying "we're confident" they'll be safe "and we have a great air base there -- a very powerful air base."U.S. government officials have long avoided disclosing or even confirming widely believed locations of U.S. nuclear weapons.
What's more, as Rachel noted on the show last night, Trump, during public White House comments yesterday, also appeared to give out the exact number of U.S. special forces currently stationed in the northern Syria border region, which has become a new conflict zone thanks to the president's disastrous new policy decision.
To be sure, there have been some news accounts with similar estimates on the number of American troops in the area, but there's a qualitative difference when the Commander in Chief publicly confirms those reports in specific detail for no reason.
All of which brings us back to a familiar concern: does Donald Trump know how to handle sensitive information responsibly?
As regular readers know, a discouraging answer is tough to avoid. Indeed, yesterday's developments come just six weeks after the president 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 started wondering whether Trump had publicly released classified material.
This comes up far more often than it should. It was, after all, just four months into Trump’s presidency that 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.”
In a normal White House, this story would’ve been an enormous scandal that haunted the president for the rest of his term, but in the Trump era, it was soon eclipsed by a dozen other evolving controversies. Nevertheless, the leak happened, and the public has never received an explanation for why the president did what he did.
The incident came on the heels of a gathering in which 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.
Less than a year later, Trump ignored the pleas of many U.S. officials and recklessly declassified information in the hopes of advancing a partisan scheme. All the while, the president refused to give up his unsecured smart phones, a dynamic that creates additional security risks.
What's more, let's not forget that this problem would likely be even worse were it not for some intervention from officials who know better. During a photo-op at an event along the U.S./Mexico border last month, the president seemed eager to boast to reporters about 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."
Soon after, we learned that during calls with world leaders, then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, on multiple occasions, found it necessary to mute the line so that he could caution Trump "against continuing to talk about sensitive subjects."
Didn’t Trump spend a year and a half on the campaign trail in 2016 complaining about Hillary Clinton being careless with sensitive intelligence?
About a month after Trump’s inauguration, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence officials were worried about the new president’s “trustworthiness” and “discretion.”
Those officials were right to be concerned.