I hear this talk about POTUS being able to deem "classified" information as "declassified" as per their own arbitrary discretion and per that, the POTUS does not violate anything; I wonder if this is actually true and if so it'd seem the POTUS is exempt from the Espionage Act of 1917.


Could a POTUS be subject to prosecution on the Espionage Act of 1917 and what would it take to make that actually happen to a POTUS?

Related Recent Event

According to the Washington Post Trump revealed highly classified information to Russia~

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Then as per Espionage Act of 1917

It was based on the Defense Secrets Act of 1911, especially the notions of obtaining or delivering information relating to "national defense" to a person who was not "entitled to have it", itself based on an earlier British Official Secrets Act. The Espionage Act law imposed much stiffer penalties than the 1911 law, including the death penalty.[3]

  • 8
    – Colin
    May 16, 2017 at 4:45
  • 2
    I've voted to close this as off topic because it isn't about government, the political process, or politics. May 16, 2017 at 21:06

1 Answer 1


No, the President indeed has the authority to declassify any classified information.

If he unclassified the information that he shared, it would be deemed legal to deliver it to others as it's unclassified, thus he won't be breaking any law to share it.

If you continue reading the Washington Post article that you cited:

For almost anyone in government, discussing such matters with an adversary would be illegal. As president, Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that his disclosures broke the law.

(emphasis mine)

This Bloomberg article also states:

Or at least that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 1988 case, Department of the Navy v. Egan.

Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the opinion, said that the executive’s “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.”

Blackmun’s idea that the president has an inherent right to decide who gets access to classified information seems to imply the converse: that the president has the inherent authority to declassify information, too. Although there’s no case on this point, scholars took that view during the years of the George W. Bush administration, when the president was thought to have declassified some information that was leaked to the news media by White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

It makes sense. If it is up to the president to decide what can’t be disclosed, it should be up to him to decide what can be.

(emphasis mine)

  • Blackmun's quote, on its face, states that the president can classify information at will, not that they can declassify it at will.
    – Colin
    May 16, 2017 at 6:20

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