UPDATE: As Katie just reported, Gen. Michael Flynn (mentioned below) has resigned. You simply can't "mislead" the Vice President like that, especially on an issue so sensitive -- and on which you (and by extension your boss) is already thought to be vulnerable. He didn't tell Pence the truth, for whatever reason, and that deception was verifiable. Pence then unwittingly spread that false information to the public. Flynn had to go:
Bad pick to start with. Lying to VP -- especially with Russia whispers floating -- was unforgivable and incredibly stupid.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) February 14, 2017
Due to the media's decidedly uneven track record thus far in reporting accurately about his administration, this CNN story ought to be subjected to an emerging 24-hour rule on 'Trump scoops' reported by the press. With that caveat in place, dinner guests and other sources are describing a scenario that played out on Saturday night, when the president was dining with Japan's Prime Minister at Mar-a-Lago. Trump received a cell phone call about a developing international incident, over which he reportedly proceeded to receive and review intelligence in full view of other restaurant patrons, and within obvious earshot of the waitstaff. Some of these details are worrisome:
The iceberg wedge salads, dripping with blue cheese dressing, had just been served on the terrace of Mar-a-Lago Saturday when the call to President Donald Trump came in: North Korea had launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile, its first challenge to international rules since Trump was sworn in three weeks ago...Sitting alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he'd spent most of the day golfing, Trump took the call on a mobile phone at his table, which was set squarely in the middle of the private club's dining area...As Mar-a-Lago's wealthy members looked on from their tables, and with a keyboard player crooning in the background, Trump and Abe's evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN...as he sat down for the planned working dinner with Abe, whose country is well within range of North Korea's missiles, it was clear his counterpart felt it necessary to respond to the test. The launch occurred just before 8 a.m. on Sunday morning in Japan. Trump's National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and chief strategist Steve Bannon left their seats to huddle closer to Trump as documents were produced and phone calls were placed to officials in Washington and Tokyo. The patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents. Even as a flurry of advisers and translators descended upon the table carrying papers and phones for their bosses to consult, dinner itself proceeded apace. Waiters cleared the wedge salads and brought along the main course as Trump and Abe continued consulting with aides.
Eventually the deliberations were relocated to another room at Trump's now-iconic resort:
Eventually Trump and Abe, along with their collection of aides, stood and moved from the dining terrace and toward a marble-trimmed ballroom, whose gilded columns were concealed by more sober-looking black drapes. Standing in front of an American and Japanese flag, a stern-faced Abe called the launch "absolutely intolerable," and insisted North Korea adhere to United Nations Security Council resolutions barring it from testing of ballistic missiles..."I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100%," Trump said...But even as he confronted one of the gravest matters of his office, Trump nonetheless found it impossible to resist dropping in on a nearby wedding reception, already underway in his treasured Grand Ballroom. Trump designed and built the space himself after purchasing Mar-a-Lago in the 1980s. Entering the ornate room, Trump took a photo with the bride and her bridesmaids, who posed in red gowns next to the commander in chief, mimicking his signature thumbs-up. Then he grabbed a microphone. "I saw them out on the lawn today," Trump said of the bride and groom, who were standing nearby. "I said to the Prime Minister of Japan, I said, 'C'mon Shinzo, let's go over and say hello.' They've been members of this club for a long time," Trump said of the newlyweds. "They've paid me a fortune."
A few points: First, I saw some Trump opponents wringing their hands on social media about the president yukking it up with the wedding party shortly after addressing North Korea's rogue missile test, while others were indignant that this confab with an allied leader took place at Trump's private club in the first place. These are superficial and trivial objections that mis-prioritize meaningful concerns. If Trump can conduct the people's business at Mar-a-Lago, why should that matter? And if a famously gregarious reality television personality-turned-politician wants to drop in on a wedding for a few lighthearted remarks and photos, there's no harm to the republic in that. There's a chance that Prime Minister Abe may found it unseemly, but it's quintessential Trump, and world leaders are going to have to grow accustomed to some of his eccentricities. (By the way, the Japanese people are supposedly relieved and pleased with how the visit played out, with Abe's approval rating climbing upon its conclusion). Here are my more serious questions, based on the excerpts above:
(1) Is Trump using an encrypted cellphone now that he's president? His predecessor had one specially made for him. Has Trump followed suit? Using "civilian" mobile devices to communicate on serious international security and intelligence matters is a major no-no, as many Americans learned during Hillary Clinton's email scandal.
(2) This may sound silly, but is Mar-a-Lago being regularly swept for bugs or listening devices? Foreign intelligence operations may realize that their access to, say, the White House is a heavy lift, but if Trump is going to be discussing important -- or personal -- matters at a sprawling Florida hotel much of the time, unique opportunities to gather data or dirt may present themselves.
(3) Why wasn't Trump's real-time briefing on a nuclear-related violation by an outlaw regime at least taken to a private area? The idea that random dinner guests were able to convey detailed accounts of what happened to the news media is disquieting. And this former Obama staffer (the "dude" dude on Benghazi) has a point:
Collecting intelligence on the US president is now as simple as paying off a Mar-a-Lago waiter.— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) February 13, 2017
Members of the wait staff were said to be buzzing around the table, delivering and clearing dishes while this conversation (likely entailing pieces of classified information) carried on. That is a potential vulnerability. Any conservative who ripped Mrs. Clinton's egregious mishandling of classified material, or who raised hackles about her numerous violations leading to the very real risk of intel spillage, cannot simply shrug off Trump's conduct simply because he's "their guy" or a Republican. And on that general score, speculation is rampant about the future of the president's controversial National Security Adviser, who alleged to have worrisome ties to Russia. Jim Gergaghty writes that if Gen. Flynn did in fact mislead Vice President Pence on the nature of his exchange with a Kremlin official during the presidential transition, two possibilities arise:
Here’s what the entire controversy surrounding National Security Advisor Michael Flynn comes down to: When he says something, do the other people in the Trump administration, particularly the president and Vice President Pence, trust him? If the answer is “yes,” he can weather just about any political storm. If the answer is “no,” then he’s already on his way out, he just doesn’t know it yet.
The public line at the moment is that Flynn isn't going anywhere. We'll see if that lasts, especially amid reports of turmoil at the NSC. I'll leave you with this disconcerting reporting from John Schindler, a former US intelligence official with deep ties to that community -- and who was sharply critical of the Obama administration and Clinton's email imbroglio:
EXCLUSIVE ===> IC pushes back against a White House it considers leaky, untruthful and penetrated by the Kremlinhttps://t.co/ZGL9qFqODH— John Schindler (@20committee) February 12, 2017