President Donald Trump’s administration has careened from chaos to free fall after disclosures the president provided classified intelligence to Russia and reportedly asked then-FBI director Jim Comey to shut down the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. These reckless acts further undermine national security and Trump’s credibility. The Justice Department’s appointment late Wednesday of a special counsel in the case is a positive development. But Vice President Mike Pence and Republican congressional leaders should stop looking the other way.
Trump’s disclosure during a closed Oval Office meeting with senior Russian officials of a new terrorist threat to air travel was breathtaking for its vanity and lack of discretion. In bragging of his access to secret information, he shared details of an Islamic State threat involving laptop computers on airplanes with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, reportedly obtained by Israel, was disclosed without Israel’s consent, and it was considered so sensitive it was restricted even among U.S. authorities.
As Trump defended his blabbing to the Russians in the Oval Office, reports surfaced that Trump had asked Comey to end the FBI investigation into Flynn. The bureau at the time was intensifying its examination of any links between Russia and the Trump campaign team. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump told Comey, according to a memo the director reportedly wrote shortly after meeting with Trump. Comey created a paper trail and shared it with senior FBI officials out of apparent concern that the president was improperly trying to influence the investigation.
The White House tried to deny Trump’s security breach, then rationalized his actions as within his authority after Trump was contradicted on the first flimsy excuse. It also claims the president “has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation.” Trump fired Comey last week, nearly three months after the private meeting that took place.
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These developments go far beyond the previous erratic, impulsive behavior of a president unmoved by facts or conventional norms. The disclosure of state secrets to Russia raises national security concerns even if it was not illegal, especially if U.S. allies and America’s intelligence services respond by holding back what they tell this president. And Trump’s interaction with Comey, if confirmed, could amount to an obstruction of justice.
The appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel should shed a bright light on the case. But it doesn’t excuse Republican congressional leaders for burying their heads in the sand. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has asked for “less drama” from the White House. House Speaker Paul Ryan cautioned against “rushing to judgment” and questioned why Comey – if his account were true – “didn’t take action at the time.” Sen. Marco Rubio meekly offered that Congress has an obligation to “look into” the charges while minimizing the White House’s problem as one of “messaging.”
The issue isn’t messaging but what the messenger in chief said and did. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House oversight committee, asked the FBI on Tuesday to provide all memos, notes and recordings of any communication between Comey and the president. Two Senate committees followed suit on Wednesday and invited Comey to testify publicly.
Trump’s latest crises come as he prepares for his first official overseas trip. It’s time Pence and congressional Republicans move quickly to stabilize the situation, reassure allies and stop defending the indefensible actions of this unstable presidency.