During a meeting last Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information regarding the operations of the Islamic State. According to the Washington Post, Trump had not been authorized to share that information since it had come from a U.S. ally. Initially, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that Trump had done anything wrong. In a series of tweets this morning, however, Trump undermined his own officials and admitted to the leak:
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.
Trump’s claim that he has “the absolute right to” reveal classified information to whomever he wants has already garnered comparisons across Twitter and the news media to Richard Nixon’s 1977 interview with British journalist David Frost. Nixon responded to one of Frost’s questions about his use of executive paper by saying “Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.”
The comments, while resulting from vastly different political contests, reveal the narcissism at the heart of the Nixon and Trump presidencies. Trump claimed this morning that he could reveal highly classified material to Russian diplomats for “Humanitarian reasons” and to get Russia “to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” Setting aside the vague reference to humanitarian reasons, the heart of Trump’s claim is that as president, he has the right to use whatever information he wants in order to pursue specific policy goals.
That logic is, to say the least, problematic. After all, Trump was not sharing information with Great Britain, Germany, Japan, or some other staunch American ally. Rather he was speaking with Russia, America’s greatest international rival. A nation that the U.S. intelligence community concluded interfered in the last presidential election to aid Trump’s presidential bid. Additionally, several top Trump presidential campaign officials had contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. And to top it off, last week Trump fired F.B.I. director James Comey for continuing to investigate these connections. On the surface this seems deeply troubling, we have a president sharing highly classified information with Russia while his administration is shrouded in scandal over campaign officials possibly coordinating with a foreign power.
Or, as a New York Times article from today suggests a much simpler explanation. Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush wrote that Trump “a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.” Either the president is sharing top-secret intelligence with America’s biggest rival or he’s too lazy or stupid to care about sharing it.
Nixon, on the other hand, had masterminded a criminal conspiracy to investigate, illegally monitor, and burglarize his opponents. In the same interview with Frost, Nixon compared his behavior to that of Lincoln’s during the Civil War. Nixon claimed that
Lincoln said, and I think I can remember the quote almost exactly, he said, ‘Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation.’ Now that’s the kind of action I’m referring to. Of course in Lincoln’s case it was the survival of the Union in wartime, it’s the defense of the nation and, who knows, perhaps the survival of the nation.
When Frost pointed out that Nixon’s situation was in no way similar to Lincoln’s, Nixon replied that “This nation was torn apart in an ideological way by the war in Vietnam, as much as the Civil War tore apart the nation when Lincoln was president.” When pressed on the issue further, Nixon claimed that during war, “a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re all talking about.” In other words, Nixon viewed the unrest generated by the Vietnam war as justifying his behavior—including using resources from the F.B.I., C.I.A., and the I.R.S. to investigate his political enemies.
The justifications of Trump and Nixon share a similar narcissism. In fact, Nixon’s efforts were not about protecting the United States, at all. Rather they were about protecting himself and ensuring his reelection. Trump’s claim of having the right to share classified intelligence with whomever he wants to, follows a similar selfish impulse. As Bruce Miroff, a presidential historian explained to TPM, “He [Trump] can’t stand thinking that either he’s in the wrong, as in this case, or that somebody else was in charge of a major move, as was the case with the Comey firing. He’s the man in charge.” So while the comments emerged from different historical contexts, they both came from men who placed their own needs over those who elected them to the presidency in the first place.