It’s time to admit that Washington is Baghdad on the Potomac. The branches of government are at war with one another, and no one knows where the Green Zone is.
On Monday night, a reporter in the White House tweeted that there was shouting coming from inside the Cabinet meeting room, where grim-faced presidential adviser Steve Bannon, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Communications Director Michael Dubke had gathered.
Lower-level aides quickly turned up the sound on their televisions to drown out the argument.
While the cable channel chatter may have masked the bunker melee, that coverage offered no solace after unidentified sources—presumably from the U.S. intelligence sector—leaked that President Donald Trump had revealed state secrets about the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) to Russian officials, whose glad-handing Oval Office visit last week was recorded not by the American press but by Russia’s Tass.
The general outline of the shared top-secret info, which apparently had to do with an ISIS plot to weaponize laptop computers on airplanes, is publicly known. But the details of what Trump shared with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, including the name of the city where the intel source is based, were “so sensitive” that the U.S. had not shared them with its allies, according to The Washington Post.
Like the monthslong lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, these days of shock and awe have been coming for a long time. The president has been skirmishing with the press and the federal bureaucracy, especially the spies, since his election. He made the “lying media” the whipping boy of his first 100 days and has made enemies of an army of federal employees by appointing agency heads who seem to have been chosen because they are either underqualified or openly hostile to their jobs.
The Post’s sources were apparently tipped to the possible breach by the White House itself. Thomas Bossert, the president’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, called the CIA and the National Security Agency to alert them that Trump had shared the information with the Russians.
On Tuesday, Trump fired back that he has the “absolute right” to share information with the Russians. And, in fact, while it is illegal for other government officials to share national secrets, the president can legally declassify material.
Russia has officially denied the allegations. Back in Moscow, the whole saga is playing like a Slavic Saturday Night Live skit. Demands for Trump impersonators to clown at parties and clubs are on the rise, reports Foreign Policy magazine, and on Sunday night Russia’s state-run evening news ridiculed Washington’s story of the week. “The new action-drama series, tentatively titled Secrets of Trump’s Oval Office, becomes more fascinating every day,” commentator Evgeny Baranov said on Channel One. “Russia’s footprint only enhances the intrigues of this bold plotline…. The latest episode with the unexpected resignation of Comey promises to be extremely gripping.”
But the Oval Office leak and the James Comey firing have slammed Washington like a pair of Tomahawk missiles. Agents at the FBI, the nation’s top law enforcement agency, are seething about how the president fired their director last week and added insult to injury by calling Comey a “showboat.” Trump’s open admiration of Vladimir Putin and Russia-friendly attitude long ago alienated the U.S. intelligence establishment.
It’s unlikely that “the Russia thing,” as the president put it in an interview last week with NBC’s Lester Holt, will go away now. On the contrary, it’s been engineered into an unknown number of improvised explosive devices planted all over town, from Capitol Hill to the J. Edgar Hoover building (the FBI’s headquarters) to the Treasury Department’s financial crimes division.
Throughout the campaign and since the election, Trump’s business associates in gaming and New York real estate have proved a gold mine for investigative journalism. A new Dutch documentary, The Dubious Friends of Donald Trump, released over the weekend, suggests that the Trump Organization has been deeply involved with members of the Russian mafia. Senate Intelligence Committee investigators have had months to advance on investigative journalism that lays out aspects of the same story. The committee recently asked the Treasury Department to look into money laundering and Trump’s associates.
Republicans in the Senate, like Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, are starting to break ranks. Senator Lindsey Graham has openly criticized Trump for firing Comey and for suggesting he taped him, and publicly urged the president to “back off” his resistance to probes into Russian connections to aides and hacks. Senator Bob Corker said the White House is in a “downward spiral” due to a lack of discipline.
The Comey firing, the bad optics of the Tass-recorded jovial gathering with the Russians and the revelations Monday about the president’s ad hoc declassification of ISIS-related intel all indicate open warfare. House Republicans have remained impervious to calls for impeachment even as the president’s historically low approval ratings threaten to drag them down, mainly because Trump is well on his way to delivering on the two big promises for which they believe they were sent to Washington—deregulation and lower taxes.
Every day, House Republicans must recalculate whether it’s still safe to bunker down with the White House. It’s impossible to imagine much real government business will get done in the capital amid the leaks and investigations, the duck and cover, and even a temporary retreat to safer ground.
This is a president who has often boasted of his instincts, and the timing of his first foreign trip while in office looks impeccable. If he can make it unscathed to Friday, he will be on the road for 10 days, traveling like Alexander the Great with an entourage of 1,000 to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican, followed by the G-7 meeting (once the G-8, but now sans the Russians) in sunny Sicily.
The trip could turn into a 10-day cease-fire. Or Trump could come home to find his presidency in wreckage.