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An Impeachable Offense? Questions Swirl as Trump Accused of Sharing Top Secret Intel with Russians

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Senior White House officials were apparently so alarmed by President Trump’s disclosures of classified intelligence to Russia that they called the CIA and National Security Agency afterward to warn them of what had happened. Officials said they were concerned Trump’s comments would jeopardize a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. We speak to Columbia Law School lecturer Scott Horton and Stanford professor Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution. Diamond served as senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Stanford University in Northern California, as we continue to talk about The Washington Post exposé revealing how President Trump disclosed highly classified intelligence to Russian officials last week. I want to go to Donald Trump when he was campaigning for president. Here he is last September.

DONALD TRUMP: We also need the best protection of classified information. That is the worst situation. Hillary’s private email scandal, which put our classified information in the reach of our enemies, disqualifies her from the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. In London, Scott Horton is with us, lecturer at Columbia Law School, contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, author of Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare. Still with me here at Stanford University is Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford.

Scott Horton, your response to, well, what President Trump said before he was president and what he reportedly talked to the Russians about the day after he fired the FBI director, James Comey?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, on one level, it’s just a remarkable display of hypocrisy, of course. I mean, we have him pledging to be very cautious in the management of national security information and criticizing his rival ruthlessly over this, and, on the other hand, behaving in a very cavalier fashion with the most serious sorts of secrets.

But I’d say both of these incidents—that is, the investigation into the Clinton emails and the controversy now surrounding this meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov in the Oval Office—also serve to demonstrate an important feature of the way the classification system operates. That is, it exists to bind and tie those well down the list of authority. But as we approach the apex of the system, involving Cabinet officers and the president and the vice president, there’s actually much less constraint. The president has an absolute right to declassify anything. If he shares information, you could say it would be deemed declassified. So we can get out of the way immediately the question of illegality. So there’s no illegality in what he’s done. Yet it may be a breathtaking betrayal.

And going back to the things that Larry Diamond said, I think very correctly, earlier, it does raise very fundamental questions about his judgment, and it does raise some legal issues. But they’re at the highest level. They’re at the level of legality that goes to his oath of office, his pledge to uphold the Constitution and laws, and preserve, protect and defend the United States. And that is impeachment territory.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about when this happened—what was it?—a day after President Trump fired James Comey, so certainly very much in the spotlight. According to reports, even he was surprised at the level of blowback for his action. Then the pictures coming out at the White House of him, you know, laughing with his Russian colleagues. Talk about the timing of this.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, that is the second most striking thing, that he agrees to have a meeting in the Oval Office, where it’s literally the only major scheduled event on his calendar, the day after he has fired James Comey and immediately after he gave an interview to Lester Holt in which he acknowledged that he was firing Comey because—in the first instance, because of his concerns about the Russia probe that the FBI was carrying out. So, I would say the visuals are astonishing.

But then, when we get into that meeting that occurred, notably with Sergey Kislyak, who, of course, is a leading Russian spymaster in the United States, and Lavrov, who is the senior architect of President Putin’s foreign policy, that meeting, as occurred, allowing Russian media to come into the Oval Office while excluding American media, and then the whole flavor of that media, as was transmitted in—that meeting, as it was transmitted in the Russian media, was jovial, gregarious, back-slapping, friendly, open. That contrasts rather sharply with almost every meeting that Trump has had with major allies, with the Australian prime minister, with Angela Merkel, with Theresa May, and on and on and on. Those meetings have been touchy, difficult, usually have involved a great deal of friction and challenge. So I think it’s fair for everybody to look at this contrast and ask what—you know, what is going on here and what marks this just extraordinary attitude that Trump has towards Russia, which, in the quadrennial review, is still viewed as America—presenting the greatest security threat to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of this is about the U.S. and Russia having an alliance against ISIS. Is Trump being criticized through a Cold War lens here, Scott?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think that—I think we have to be careful about that. And there certainly is a—there is an element of that in the criticism that comes up inside the Washington Beltway, particularly the criticism that comes from neocons. But I don’t think that that explains the problem altogether. I think when we look more closely at the situation in the Middle East, you know, there is a context that has to be taken into account. And that is that Russia is very tightly aligned with Iran and with President Assad in Syria. And while we have mutual enemies, you know, we also don’t have the same friends, not by a long shot. There is a very, very clear friction and distance between the U.S. position and the Russian position throughout the region, and particularly in Syria. So, I think if we step back, we would say that, yeah, pursuing a closer, collaborative stance with Russia in operations in Syria, that’s a perfectly fair thing to pursue. Sharing intelligence would be a reasonable thing to do in pursuing that relationship. But the way things occurred and are being reported now in The Washington Post is—nevertheless, it’s shocking. It’s—in a word, it’s reckless.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about impeachment territory. What exactly do you mean? And how do you see this possibly happening? Do you see this as the beginning of the end, Scott Horton, for the Trump presidency?

SCOTT HORTON: I think so. I talked about the oath a little bit earlier. So, impeachment proceedings that have occurred historically have—when they involve the president, they do—they always involve whether the president has satisfied or fulfilled his oath. That’s taken as covering a number of different areas. And when the president behaves on the national security stage in a way that is reckless, shows little—disregard for the security of the country, that’s a fair question. So it becomes an issue for discussion in connection with impeachment proceedings. And I think I’d be surprised if we don’t—if we come to impeachment proceedings at some point—and I’d say the odds makers—the odds makers here in London are putting this now as a 50/50 proposition—if we get there, I think that this event, this meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov, is going to feature in the impeachment process and the bill of impeachment.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Diamond, do you really see this happening in Washington with a Republican majority in the House and the Senate?

LARRY DIAMOND: No, I see almost no prospect of it. I think either Trump would have to do something so massively criminal or dangerous that even the shockingly loyal Republican leadership, shocking in its loyalty to Trump, would defect, probably to save their own necks in advance of the midterm election, or, more likely—and keep in mind this was certainly the pattern during Watergate, as you well know, Amy—it will only be when and if there is a Democratic Congress that the Congress is able to act to defend the Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: But very conservative Republicans eventually, when it came to Nixon, said, “No, this is a step too far.”

LARRY DIAMOND: Yeah, but it took a long time from the initial break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the ultimate defection of enough Republicans to make it inevitable that Nixon was going to be convicted in the Senate if it went to trial. And, you know, even to the bitter end, a fair number of House Republicans voted not to impeach him.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Larry Diamond, your thoughts right now, overall, about the Trump administration and about the United States?

LARRY DIAMOND: My thoughts are basically aligned with what Senator Corker said yesterday, and this could be a straw in the wind. He’s a very respected guy. He is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Trump was considering him for secretary of state. We’re, in essence, in free fall here. And I think we’re in free fall ethically, and I think we’re in free fall in level of competence.

And, Amy, I was just thinking about the state of the world now. Go back to what—all the news you read this morning about the ongoing civil strife in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we still have troop commitments and major historical stakes—

AMY GOODMAN: Where you spent a lot of time, in Iraq.

LARRY DIAMOND: Well, in Iraq—about raging civil wars, not only in Syria, but, much less reported—and thank you for reporting it—in Yemen; the critical challenge of international terrorism represented by ISIS, and then there’s also still al-Qaeda; the North Korean missile threat, which we haven’t even talked about, but which is potentially, with its nuclear program, an existential threat to the United States. And if you have then a president who’s incompetent and whose commitment to the Constitution is dubious, and is not even willing to read more than a page of national security briefing memos, I’m not just outraged, I’m actually frightened for the national security of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Trump will be meeting with the Turkish president, Erdogan, today at the White House, the president of Turkey just having pushed through a referendum that would increase his dictatorial powers. Much of Europe criticized this. President Trump called him and congratulated him.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this meeting and this relationship. And do you think it has anything to do with the fact that President Trump has the twin Trump Towers in Istanbul?

LARRY DIAMOND: I don’t know—no, probably not, actually. I think it has more to do—and this is actually much more disturbing—with the fact that he has an open and consistent admiration for authoritarian leaders. Keep in mind that he’s also invited to the White House, though fortunately so far it isn’t scheduled, a meeting with Philippine President Duterte, who has presided over, in less than a year in office, the extrajudicial execution of over 7,000 people on the streets of the Philippines. And the back-slapping joviality that Scott referred to with the Russian leaders seems to be a pattern with authoritarian leaders in general. A responsible American president might, in a low-profile way, talk to President Erdogan about our mutual national security urgent interests in Syria and in the region, but raise open and serious concerns about the human rights—deteriorating human rights situation and the loss—we must say that—of democracy in Turkey. And no one should hold their breath that Donald Trump is going to spend 10 seconds raising concerns about that in his meeting with President Erdogan.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, and we’re just about to go to the Washington state attorney general, but I wanted to get your comment on President Trump’s latest tweet that happened during this broadcast. He said, “I have been asking Director Comey and others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the leakers in the intelligence community.”

LARRY DIAMOND: Well, I can only say, thank God that people in the intelligence community feel a higher loyalty to the country than they do to the political position of the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Diamond, thanks so much for being with us, senior fellow here at Stanford University at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. And thanks so much to Scott Horton, lecturer at Columbia Law School, contributing editor at Harper’s magazine.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Seattle to talk to the Washington state attorney general, Bob Ferguson. Stay with us.

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