President Donald Trump claimed an “absolute right” to share information about terrorism with Russian officials, but some lawmakers in both parties expressed alarm over reports he had disclosed highly classified material in an Oval Office meeting last week and demanded a fuller accounting.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump said in a series of tweets on Tuesday. “ Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
In the tweets, Trump indirectly acknowledged — but did not confirm or deny — a Washington Post report that he had revealed to Russia’s foreign minister and US ambassador highly classified details from a US intelligence partner about an IS plot. Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the president’s tweets didn’t undercut attempts by senior White House officials to contradict the story.
The “story that came out tonight as reported is false,” White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said at a hastily arranged appearance on Monday outside the White House that lasted less than a minute. “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
The Post story, however, didn’t allege that Trump revealed sources or methods, nor did it say he disclosed military operations. According to the Post, the intelligence, involving information about an IS plot to use laptop computers as possible weapons aboard commercial aircraft, had been provided by a US ally with access to the inner workings of the terrorist group. While Trump didn’t reveal the specific methods that developed the information or sources, he described elements of a specific plot and the city in IS territory where the threat was detected that could be enough for the Russians to draw a fuller picture, according to one intelligence official cited by the Post.
The controversy erupted at a time when Trump already is fending off questions about his firing of FBI Director James Comey amid an investigation of possible collusion by Trump associates in Russian interference with the U.S. election. It also comes just days before he leaves for his first overseas trip as president, one that will start in the heart of the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and Israel, two crucial U.S. allies on the front lines of the battle against IS.
The revelation has added impact for Trump because during his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton last year, he repeatedly assailed her “careless” use of a private email system while she was secretary of state, a practice he argued could have exposed classified information. He claimed it made her unfit for the presidency. Surrogates at his campaign rallies led chants of “lock her up!”
The Post report, parts of which have been confirmed by the New York Times and other media organizations, have raised concerns in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who seldom comments publicly on Trump’s controversies, said during in an interview with Bloomberg News on Tuesday that “we could do with a little less drama from the White House.”
“I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we’re trying to accomplish and less time on other things,” McConnell said.Other leading Republicans were more direct. “The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order,” Republican Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. “Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.”
Republican Senator John McCain called the Post report “deeply disturbing.”
“The time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia’s aggressive behavior, including its interference in American and European elections,” he said in a statement.
Lawmakers from both parties said they wanted more information. Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said “The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio told reporters that he hoped lawmakers hear from the White House on Tuesday so they can “get some clarity out of this.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer went to the floor of the Senate to demand the White House provide a transcript to the intelligence committee.
Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel, said sharing information without the permission of a foreign intelligence partner “violates a cardinal rule” of dealing with friendly agencies.
“If it’s accurate, it’s disturbing because it’s divulging information about operations in Syria which could be exploited not only by the Russians to interrupt intelligence operations that they feel are threatening to them,” Reed said.
The intelligence disclosed was held by the U.S. at one of the highest classification levels that would typically prevent it from being shared even with allies, according to the Post.
The Kremlin on Tuesday denied that Trump shared secrets at his White House meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova ridiculed the Post report Tuesday, writing on Facebook that American newspapers “can be used for other things but there’s no need to read them — in recent times it’s not only harmful but dangerous.”
“We don’t want anything to do with this nonsense,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “It’s complete nonsense.”
The intelligence involved may be behind the U.S. announcement on March 21 that electronic devices larger than smartphones would be banned from cabins on flights originating from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa. The Department of Homeland Security has been considering expanding the restriction to flights from Europe.
The president has broad authority to declassify information so it’s not likely he broke the law, according to the Post, even though he shared it with a U.S. adversary.
“Presidents have often revealed, on their own authority (and sometimes inadvertently), secrets about collection capabilities that the Intelligence Community would have preferred to have kept secret, because such exposure tends to make such collection more difficult,” Nicholas Dujmovic, a Catholic University of America professor in Washington who spent more than 25 years at the CIA, said in an email.
President Richard Nixon mistakenly revealed U.S. abilities to monitor Soviet and Chinese electronic transmissions in the Far East and President Jimmy Carter acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. used satellites to collect overhead imagery, Dujmovic said. President Ronald Reagan ordered the release of transcripts from the National Security Agency to show that the Soviet shootdown of KAL 007 in 1983 was deliberate, he added.
“Presidents can do this; in a sense, they ‘own’ US secrets,” Dujmovic said. “But in a larger sense, they are the custodians of the secrets that need to be kept for the sake of U.S. national security, and what President Trump is alleged to have done goes beyond the pale. If the Post reporting is accurate, he revealed compartmented information on the spur of the moment, simply to impress his foreign guests.”
He said it may make U.S. allies more wary of sharing secrets.