FACT CHECK: Did Trump Leak Classified Info About Nuclear Subs?

David Sivak | Fact Check Editor

Media outlets began to circulate on Wednesday that President Donald Trump had revealed sensitive military information in a phone conversation with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte by discussing the presence of two nuclear submarines near North Korea.

Verdict: False

The transcript of the April call reveals Trump discussed with Duterte the U.S. response to the threat posed by North Korea.

“We have a lot of firepower over there,” Trump said. “We have two submarines – the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.”

After the transcript leaked, a number of news outlets began running stories that suggest Trump disclosed sensitive information to Duterte by mentioning the submarines.

“Revealing the sensitive military information is likely to raise more concerns about what the president divulges to other foreign leaders,” NBC News reported.

It was reported on May 15 Trump might have disclosed “highly classified information” about ISIS in a meeting with Russian officials. The White House called the report false and insisted that no “intelligence sources or methods” were revealed in that conversation.

Yet the idea that Trump let sensitive information slip to Duterte fits into a developing narrative that the president can’t responsibly handle classified information.

BuzzFeed suggests the Pentagon is outraged over the mention, quoting officials as saying “We never talk about subs!”

However, the military does on rare occasions talk about subs after they’ve docked in port.

“Say we’re doing an exercise with a foreign country and we want to promote that event, we want to advertise that cooperation with a foreign country – those typically would generate a press release to go out,” Navy Public Affairs Chief Darryl Wood told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Days prior to Trump’s phone call with Duterte, the Navy announced in a press release that the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine, had docked at a port in South Korea. And several days after the call, it publicized that another nuclear submarine, the USS Cheyenne, had arrived at a base in Japan.

“Anything that’s generated for a press release is already approved for common public knowledge prior to being released,” said Wood.

The submarines mentioned by Trump are not necessarily the same submarines announced in the Navy press releases. It’s also unclear whether the president was referring to nuclear-powered submarines or submarines that carry nuclear warheads.

The stated purpose of the visits to South Korea and Japan was to promote a strategic alliance and likely part of a larger effort to send a message of solidarity against provocative missile tests by North Korea.

“It seems to me there was a signaling campaign underway – probably well coordinated between the Pacific Commander and the National Security Council – that resulted in that submarine in late April making a port visit in South Korea in a very visible way,” Bryan McGrath, deputy director for the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, told TheDCNF.

Two aircraft carriers – the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan – were already publicly operating in the region, and aircraft carrier strike groups typically include a nuclear submarine.

The buildup of U.S. forces in the Western Pacific has been publicized by the Navy, widely reported by the media and confirmed by the president himself.

“We are sending an armada, very powerful,” said Trump in a recent interview. “We have submarines, very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That, I can tell you.”

If the presence of nuclear submarines near North Korea is a military secret, then it’s a poorly kept one. News reports have overstated the seriousness of what Trump revealed.

“This is a pitch in the dirt and I think there are people who are just sort of constantly ready to criticize the president,” said McGrath.

“I am wary of the President’s lack of discernment when it comes to classified material,” admits McGrath. “I just don’t think this rises to that level.”

Our Verdict:

What Trump revealed to Duterte was consistent with what the military has already communicated in a very public way – a show of force near the Korean peninsula.

The location of nuclear submarines is classified information as a general rule, but not in the context in which Trump spoke. We rate this claim as false.

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David Sivak

Fact Check Editor
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