WASHINGTON ― As Republicans try to link President Joe Biden’s release of $6 billion of frozen Iranian money as part of a prisoner swap to the weekend terrorist attack on Israel, they continue to ignore the documented damage done to that country’s security by the de facto leader of their party, Donald Trump.
Less than four months into his term, the coup-attempting former president was bragging to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during their Oval Office visit about the quality of the briefings he was receiving, and as proof offered details about a secret Israeli intelligence operation into Syria.
Israeli intelligence officials were incensed upon learning of the leak because, given Russia’s close ties to Iran and Syria, they had to assume that their local source for the information had been compromised and possibly killed, according to Israeli press accounts at the time.
“If indeed Trump, out of innocence or ignorance, leaked information to the Russians, then there is a real danger to sources that it took years to acquire, and to our working methods,” an Israeli intelligence source told journalist Ronen Bergman.
Shabtai Shavit, who led the Mossad intelligence agency in the 1990s, told the Times of Israel: “If tomorrow I were asked to pass information to the CIA, I would do everything I could to not pass it to them. Or I would first protect myself and only then give it, and what I’d give would be totally neutered.”
Despite this, not one of the candidates running against Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has criticised the former president for his lack of discretion, even as they uniformly attack Biden for unfreezing $6 billion (£4.9 billion) in Iranian money that had been held in a South Korean bank. Their attacks link that decision with the assault on Israel by the militant group Hamas.
The Biden administration has defended the release of the money as a way to help get five American citizens who had been unjustly detained in Iran back home. Officials point out that the money can only be spent for food, medicine and other humanitarian purposes. Republicans critics argue that money is fungible, and that saving $6 billion on food and medicine allows Iran to spend it on terrorism instead.
On Saturday, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, within hours of Hamas’ attacks, blamed Biden: “This terrorism is funded by Biden’s idiotic release of $6 billion to the Iranians.”
“Iran has helped fund this war against Israel and Joe Biden’s policies that have gone easy on Iran have helped fill their coffers,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in a video he released on Sunday morning. “Israel is now paying the price for those policies.”
A little later, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott posted: “Biden’s weakness invited the attack. Biden’s negotiation funded the attack. Biden admin wanted Israel to stand down after the attack. At this point, Biden is complicit.”
It’s unclear how the agreement to release money to Iran for humanitarian purposes ― not a dollar of which has yet been spent ― less than a month ago could have “funded” Hamas’ attack, which involved thousands of rockets that must have been stockpiled over a period of many months.
Notably, none of the candidates’ statements criticised Trump for action weakening Israel ― even though they are all running against him for the nomination, and he is the current frontrunner by a wide margin.
Of the half dozen campaigns contacted by HuffPost, Christie’s, DeSantis’ and Scott’s among them, on the matter, only Christie’s responded: “He’s been pretty clear across the board that Trump shouldn’t be president again,” said campaign spokesman Karl Rickett.
Trump’s campaign also did not respond to HuffPost queries.
The May 10, 2017, White House meeting was covered by Russian media, but not American media, and began with Trump telling Lavrov and Kislayak that he had just fired FBI Director James Comey over the agency’s investigation into his contacts with their country ahead of his 2016 election. The Washington Post, which first reported on the incident, quoted an administration official who said that Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
The intelligence concerned ISIS’s newfound ability to make bombs in laptop computers that could get through airport screening, which had led to a ban on people carrying laptops with them on flights coming from a number of Muslim countries.
The information had come via Israeli intelligence agencies through a source who had infiltrated an ISIS cell in Syria and which had been confirmed thanks to electronic eavesdropping equipment planted in a daring nighttime mission by Israeli commandos.
Trump revealed this to the Russians, including the Syrian city in which the operation took place, as part of his boasts.
“Donald Trump further proves he is too dangerous to lead the United States on the world stage,” Biden campaign co-chair Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois senator and military veteran, said in a statement. “The generals and other military leaders who served under Trump—those in a position to know—have repeatedly said he made our country less safe, not more.”
US intelligence agencies have worked closely with their Israeli counterparts for nearly 70 years, since an Israeli agent got hold of a secret speech Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had delivered denouncing Joseph Stalin’s brutality.
In recent years, that cooperation has included work against Iran and the various terror groups in the Middle East.
The clandestine destruction of Iranian uranium-enrichment centrifuges undertaken during the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, for example, was a joint venture between American and Israeli intelligence services.
But US intelligence officials just before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 warned their Israeli colleagues that they may want to be careful about what intelligence they chose to share in the coming administration, given Trump’s fondness for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Russia’s ties to Iran and Syria.
Israeli officials reportedly were sceptical about that warning ― until the Oval Office meeting four months later proved it correct.