On Friday, President Donald Trump taunted Iran over a disastrous failed rocket launch by posting a high-resolution photo of the damaged launch site. In response, the media pounced, accusing him of sharing classified information and placing America’s national security at risk.
But in an impromptu briefing on the White House lawn with reporters later that afternoon, the president explained why this claim — much like almost every other claim posited by the media — was false.
“I just wished Iran well. They had a big problem, and we had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do … and we’ll see what happens,” he explained.
Fast-forward to the 7:25 mark in the video below to hear him for yourself:
As Idaho Sen. James Risch rightly noted during Trump’s first year in office, “The minute the president speaks about it to someone, he has the ability to declassify anything at any time without any process.”
The statement was rated true by PolitiFact at the time on the basis that “[t]he president’s classification and declassification powers are broad,” to the point that he and he only is “ultimately responsible for classification and declassification.”
Even the Supreme Court has recognized this right via its decision in the 1998 case Department of Navy vs. Egan.
“The President, after all, is the ‘Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,'” the ruling for that case reads. “His authority to classify and control access to information bearing on national security … flows primarily from this constitutional investment of power in the President, and exists quite apart from any explicit congressional grant.”
In short, the president can “classify and declassify at will,” as said to PolitiFact by Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.
Dovetailing back to the photo, which can be seen below, it specifically shows the aftermath of the Iranian Safir SLV launch, which reportedly ended prematurely when the rocket exploded on the launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran:
The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
Despite the facts as outlined by the president, PolitiFact and even the Supreme Court, of course the media pounced promptly after Trump posted the tweet above.
“President Donald Trump has released a photograph of an apparently failed Iranian rocket launch and said the US had nothing to do with it, prompting concerns he disclosed classified information,” The Guardian reported, citing what appeared to be its own concerns.
“Intelligence experts said Trump may have exposed a previously unknown level of resolution US spy satellites have achieved, or that, somehow, US intelligence was able to get a closer shot of the launch site from an overflying aircraft.”
However, not a single intelligence expert was actually named …
The recriminations on social media were even louder. One “occasional media commentator” even went so far as to assert that “[t]he courts have recently ruled that merely because Trump utters classified information that does not, in itself, render it declassified.”
Another suggested that the president just committed treason:
This just made me think of something else. The courts have recently ruled that merely because Trump utters classified information that does not, in itself, render it declassified.
Therefore, it’s technically a security violation for clearance holders to even look at the image. pic.twitter.com/MZto0rglW1
— Bradley P. Moss (@BradMossEsq) August 30, 2019
It appears at first glance that Trump is provocatively taunting the Iranians and implying we did hack and wreck their missile launch. It appears he used a classified photo to make this implied claim. Incredible. https://t.co/egldM7lPqP
— Barry R McCaffrey (@mccaffreyr3) August 31, 2019
Only Trump would troll Iran by revealing classified information that the US did this.
— (((DeanObeidallah))) (@DeanObeidallah) August 30, 2019
“This is wild.”
“My jaw dropped.”
Trump releases what’s likely a classified image of an Iranian launch site on his decidedly unclassified Twitter account. https://t.co/ISlr5C4Sws
— Chris Megerian (@ChrisMegerian) August 30, 2019
— CNN (@CNN) August 30, 2019
How Trump used classified intel to troll Iran https://t.co/kXEuSykVuQ
— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) August 31, 2019
Isn’t revealing classified information like this…something that starts with a “t”? Or is the president immune from that? https://t.co/WdRKc1nNsC
— Jeff Nesbit (@jeffnesbit) August 31, 2019
— Catherine Philp (@scribblercat) August 30, 2019
Missing from their criticisms were the fact that the photo shared by the president wasn’t classified anymore as per his own constitutionally guaranteed powers.
That being said, the image was admittedly procured from a classified briefing, according to CNBC: “A U.S. defense official told CNBC that the picture in Trump’s tweet, which appeared to be a snapshot of a physical copy of the satellite image, was included in a Friday intelligence briefing.”
But as noted earlier, the president can “classify and declassify at will,” including via Twitter.
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