Until last week, Donald Trump appeared mostly to be a foulmouthed, narcissistic liar whose behavior and words demeaned the presidency as much as they demeaned himself. But a Washington Post report Tuesday that he revealed highly classified information on the war against the Islamic State to two key Russian diplomats has cast him as a dangerous loose cannon.
The White House, of course, disavowed the Post story, based on accounts of numerous U.S. intelligence and other officials. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump's national security adviser, who was at the Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, was trotted out on the White House front driveway to dismiss the report as "false."
Messrs. Trump and Lavrov "reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation," Mr. McMaster said, adding that "at no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly."
Then he abruptly turned and walked away from the microphones, re-entering the White House without taking any questions from the assembled reporters. It was the most recent example of Mr. Trump employing a highly trusted front man to challenge the credibility of a press corps that the president himself has long engaged in open warfare.
Early Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump tweeted: "As president I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled White House meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
Mr. McMaster later was produced again in the White House briefing room, insisting what Mr. Trump said was "wholly appropriate" and came out in the course of the conversation with the Russians. The president did not know as he spoke the source of the classified information discussed, Mr. McMaster said, that it had already been widely reported elsewhere, and did not compromise the intelligence of U.S. or cooperating foreign allies.
But the Post had reported that an administration homeland security official called the directors of the CIA and NSA and alerted them to Mr. Trump's unscripted remarks to the two Russians, an obvious heads-up in anticipation of complaints from foreign intelligence-gathering agencies that had not authorized release of such information.
The Post also reported that Mr. Trump had identified to the Russians the city in Islamic State-held territory where the classified information was acquired, thus placing the informant and others in personal jeopardy. Many members of Congress, including Republicans who have held their tongues on previous Trump missteps, were quick to express apprehensions.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, once considered a possible Trump secretary of state, said of the administration: "Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now. ... The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating ... a worrisome environment."
A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has been criticized by some party colleagues for his limited support of Mr. Trump, put out this statement: "We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation's secrets is paramount." He said Mr. Ryan "hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration."
All this has come only days before Mr. Trump is to embark on his first overseas trip as president. Mr. McMaster in his briefing room appearance provided details of the trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican and Italy. He said the mission was to emphasize Mr. Trump's interest in promoting peace and religious tolerance. But the briefing was quickly dominated by more questions about Mr. Trump's handling of classified information, a subject that is all but certain to hang as a cloud of contention over that objective.
Abroad, as at home, Donald Trump's careless, reckless and often thoughtless outbursts on foreign policy matters continue to give cause for second thought about what American voters wrought on themselves, and the world beyond, last November.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.