For President Donald Trump, it seems like another a perk of the job: a just-between-us hint at a secret only he can reveal.
Boasting of his “great intel,” Trump once told Russian officials visiting the Oval Office in 2017 about an ISIS plot so classified the disclosure risked exposing the source.
In a telephone call with the President of the Philippines, also in 2017, Trump revealed the US had positioned submarines near North Korea, information previously so closely held that even some inside the White House were caught by surprise.
And in newly revealed conversation with legendary journalist Bob Woodward, Trump disclosed a nuclear weapons system he claimed “you haven’t even seen or heard about.”
“I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said, according to a recording of their December 5, 2019, conversation, before going on to say: “We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There’s nobody. What we have is incredible.”
In the ranks of information Trump has revealed that has provoked anxiety throughout the national security apparatus, it wasn’t necessarily the most shocking revelation. While some Democrats said the disclosure could harm national security, inside the administration few appeared worried by what amounted to another boast from a President known for divulging state secrets.
Woodward writes he later confirmed with several anonymous US officials that a new weapons system had been developed and they were “surprised” that Trump revealed it.
But the remark was revealing nonetheless because it demonstrated Trump’s penchant for using sometimes secret government information to impress his interlocutors and convey his stature.
Woodward, one of the famous newspaper journalists in America, spoke with Trump 18 times for the book in conversations Trump’s most senior aides were often unaware of. The President, convinced he could generate a positive portrayal, gave Woodward his personal cell phone number and often called him at night from the White House residence.
Trump seemed to believe that the more access he offered Woodward, the better the book would make him look. Yet many of his conversations also seemed designed to impress the veteran journalist with his insider knowledge and access to top-secret information — including detailing his encounters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Asked about the nuclear weapons system after excerpts of the book emerged on Wednesday, administration officials said they weren’t sure specifically what Trump was referring to but did not express great concern that his disclosure would jeopardize American security.
In May, Trump boasted the US military was developing a new “super duper” missile that he claimed could travel 17 times faster than anything in the current arsenal. The disclosure set off a small drama at the Pentagon, where officials refused to provide any details of the weapon Trump himself unveiled.
Hours after Trump spoke, a Pentagon spokesman tweeted the Defense Department “is working on developing a range of hypersonic missiles to counter our adversaries.”
Another spokesman said, “we will not discuss capabilities of any systems we may or may not have under development.”
In March, the Pentagon said it successfully tested “a hypersonic glide body,” a key component of a hypersonic missile in a flight experiment in March, saying that weapons provide “an ability to strike targets hundreds and even thousands of miles away, in a matter of minutes.”
The Trump administration also began discussing a nuclear weapons system in 2018 that amounts to a low-yield variant of more traditional nuclear warheads.
Trump has previously boasted about modernizing the US nuclear arsenal and included a major increase in funding for that effort in his latest budget proposal.
The President, Vice President and some agency heads designated by the President have broad authority over classifying or declassifying information.
But Trump’s revelations of secret information run the risk of further damaging his already fraught relationship with US intelligence agencies. He has openly questioned the competency of intelligence officials, challenging their high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Disclosures of this kind also risk harming Trump’s credibility with partners around the world who share sensitive information with the US on the understanding that it remains confidential.
It’s not always in private that Trump reveals sensitive or classified information. His Twitter feed has also been a source of significant disclosures.
In early August 2019, Trump confirmed reports that an advanced nuclear-powered cruise missile had exploded during testing in Russia and said the US was “learning much” from the incident, information which one senior administration official described as “not classified anymore,” acknowledging that it had been classified information until the President tweeted that “We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian “Skyfall” explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!”
US officials said that at the time that the country hadn’t been developing a nuclear-powered system.
Also, in August last year, Trump claimed the US had nothing to do with the explosion of an Iranian rocket, tweeting a photo at such high resolution that it prompted questions about whether the President had publicly released classified imagery.