During a week of seemingly never-ending news, the Washington Post reported on May 15 that President Trump had shared "code-word" intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their visit to the White House the week prior. While discussing joint efforts to combat ISIS, Trump revealed to the Russians sensitive information the United States had learned about a terrorist plot to detonate laptops on transatlantic flights.
The disclosure set off a torrent of disbelief across the country, as the White House scrambled to explain exactly what was said and with what intention. Analysts expressed concern over the President having jeopardized the country’s ability to collect intelligence abroad, as well as our relationship with allies with whom we share such vital information (including Israel, the ultimate source of the intelligence that was disclosed).
In and of itself, Trump’s decision to share intelligence with Russians will have minimal immediate impact on the quality or survival of American democracy. The President has the legal authority to declassify any information he sees fit, and unlike officials at any other level of government, he cannot and should not be punished under the law for this disclosure. Whatever fallout occurs with Israel will be the result of a violation of trust between the two countries, and not the breach of any international agreement.
Instead, what remains to be seen is how the disclosure affects the administration’s relationship with its own bureaucracy (especially the national security apparatus) as well as the media more generally. This week sprung the news that President Trump had raised the idea of going after journalists who report on classified information leaked from government sources. Given the negative fallout of the incident with the Russian guests, it is not inconceivable that the administration would harden its position even further and crack down on leakers by any means.
Steps taken could involve criminal prosecutions for both the officials who leak and the reporters who disseminate, with clear negative consequences for those trying to hold political leaders accountable. Stable democracy requires that officeholders face outside scrutiny and that the wider public is made aware of any potential abuses of power on the inside. Any intimidation of those trying to peel back the curtain on government operations is a clear step in the wrong direction. Seen in that context, the Secretary for Homeland Security’s joke that the President should take his newly bestowed sword to journalists is more ominous than humorous.
David Szakonyi is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.