For President Donald Trump, it seems like another a perk of the job: a just-between-us hint at a secret only he can reveal.
Boasting of his “great intel,” Trump once told Russian officials visiting the Oval Office in 2017 about an ISIS plot so classified the disclosure risked exposing the source.
In a telephone call with the President of the Philippines, also in 2017, Trump revealed the US had positioned submarines near North Korea, information previously so closely held that even some inside the White House were caught by surprise.
And in newly revealed conversation with legendary journalist Bob Woodward, Trump disclosed a nuclear weapons system he claimed “you haven’t even seen or heard about.”
“I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said, according to a recording of their December 5, 2019, conversation, before going on to say: “We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody. What we have is incredible.”
In the ranks of information Trump has revealed that has provoked anxiety throughout the national security apparatus, it wasn’t necessarily the most shocking revelation. While some Democrats said the disclosure could harm national security, inside the administration few appeared worried by what amounted to another boast from a President known for divulging state secrets.
Woodward writes he later confirmed with several anonymous US officials that a new weapons system had been developed and they were “surprised” that Trump revealed it.
But the remark was revealing nonetheless because it demonstrated Trump’s penchant for using sometimes secret government information to impress his interlocutors and convey his stature.
Woodward, one of the famous newspaper journalists in America, spoke with Trump 18 times for the book in conversations Trump’s most senior aides were often unaware of. The President, convinced he could generate a positive portrayal, gave Woodward his personal cell phone number and often called him at night from the White House residence.
Trump seemed to believe that the more access he offered Woodward, the better the book would make him look. Yet many of his conversations also seemed designed to impress the veteran journalist with his insider knowledge and access to top-secret information — including detailing his encounters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Asked about the nuclear weapons system after excerpts of the book emerged on Wednesday, administration officials said they weren’t sure specifically what Trump was referring to but did not express great concern that his disclosure would jeopardize American security.
‘Super duper’ missile drama
In May, Trump boasted the US military was developing a new “super duper” missile that he claimed could travel 17 times faster than anything in the current arsenal. The disclosure set off a small drama at the Pentagon, where officials refused to provide any details of the weapon Trump himself unveiled.
Hours after Trump spoke, a Pentagon spokesman tweeted the Defense Department “is working on developing a range of hypersonic missiles to counter our adversaries.”
Another spokesman said, “we will not discuss capabilities of any systems we may or may not have under development.”
In March, the Pentagon said it successfully tested “a hypersonic glide body,” a key component of a hypersonic missile in a flight experiment in March, saying that weapons provide “an ability to strike targets hundreds and even thousands of miles away, in a matter of minutes.”
The Trump administration also began discussing a nuclear weapons system in 2018 that amounts to a low-yield variant of more traditional nuclear warheads.
Trump has previously boasted about modernizing the US nuclear arsenal and included a major increase in funding for that effort in his latest budget proposal.
The President, Vice President and some agency heads designated by the President have broad authority over classifying or declassifying information.
But Trump’s revelations of secret information run the risk of further damaging his already fraught relationship with US intelligence agencies. He has openly questioned the competency of intelligence officials, challenging their high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Disclosures of this kind also risk harming Trump’s credibility with partners around the world who share sensitive information with the US on the understanding that it remains confidential.
It’s not always in private that Trump reveals sensitive or classified information. His Twitter feed has also been a source of significant disclosures.
In early August 2019, Trump confirmed reports that an advanced nuclear-powered cruise missile had exploded during testing in Russia and said the US was “learning much” from the incident, information which one senior administration official described as “not classified anymore,” acknowledging that it had been classified information until the President tweeted that “We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian “Skyfall” explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!”
US officials said that at the time that the country hadn’t been developing a nuclear-powered system.
Also, in August last year, Trump claimed the US had nothing to do with the explosion of an Iranian rocket, tweeting a photo at such high resolution that it prompted questions about whether the President had publicly released classified imagery.
“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump wrote, and added what appeared to be a sarcastic sign off. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
Oval Office breach
One of the highest profile intel breaches came in an exchange with Russian officials in the Oval Office in 2017. The visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak had already sparked an uproar and violated basic White House protocol and guidance from the President’s top advisers. It was later revealed Trump divulged classified information to the Russian officials that had been relayed to the US by the Israeli government.
Trump at the time defended his right to share “facts pertaining to terrorism” and airline safety with Russia, saying in a pair of tweets he has “an absolute right” as President to do so.
A US official said Trump boasted about his access to classified intelligence in the meeting. An excerpt of an official transcript of the meeting later revealed that Trump boasted to them, “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” he said.
The President has also been known to speak to several world leaders on his personal cell phone, an unusual approach that breaks diplomatic protocol and is raising concerns about the security and secrecy of the US commander in chief’s communications.
Trump has handed out his number to the leaders of Canada, France and Mexico, according to administration officials, and has spoken with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his cell. Another senior administration official said that Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “speak constantly,” often outside standard White House protocol.
Asked whether Trump may speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin or other world leaders on his cell, one former top White House official said “we never knew who he was speaking to once he was up in the residence.”
“This was our biggest concern,” this official added. “Not only were calls being made on unsecure lines, the President’s filter was faulty, and so there was no telling what he’d say, and to whom.”
This person said the President’s top intelligence and national security advisers never seriously considered withholding sensitive information from the President out of fear that he’d divulge it: “There are people who probably joke about it, but at the end of the day, he’s the President and he’s the one calling the shots.”
‘The President can declassify anything.’
On Capitol Hill, Democrats said the disclosure of the weapons program was among the most significant in Woodward’s book.
“There is so much coverage that is focused on the character side. What matters is how it impacts our security or leads him to make really bad policy choices,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.
But Republicans largely downplayed Trump’s disclosure, arguing either they had not seen the comments or nothing the President revealed had endangered national security.
One member, acting Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, said he wasn’t sure a disclosure of that nature showed “good judgment,” although he did say Trump technically was allowed to disclose any program he wanted.
Rubio told reporters that “the President can declassify anything.”
For many members in the GOP, the President’s extensive interviews with Woodward and sustained fallout from them follow a familiar pattern. The President abandons traditional Republican orthodoxy, throws out the script, and yet GOP voters and the members who are elected by them avoid criticizing the President for fear that it will do little more than earn a rebuke from a President the Republican base isn’t abandoning anytime soon.
One Republican senator, speaking anonymously about the President’s disclosure, said Trump likes to “talk about our weapons systems in ways that most presidents wouldn’t, but even with that, I don’t think he has ever said anything that our adversaries wouldn’t have already known.”
“For him to say ‘we’ve got these things’, I wouldn’t say that, I wouldn’t want a member of the intel committee to say it, but I don’t think from an intel perspective, he is saying anything our adversaries wouldn’t know,” the senator said.
Asked why the President did it, the member said “I am not capable of analyzing why the President does what he does.