WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Tuesday defended President Donald Trump’s disclosure of classified information to senior Russian officials as “wholly appropriate,” as officials tried to beat back criticism from fellow Republicans and concerns from international allies.
One day after officials declared that reports about Trump’s discussions with the Russians were false, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the president had been engaging in “routine sharing of information” with foreign leaders.
Trump himself claimed the authority to share “facts pertaining to terrorism” and airline safety with Russia, saying in a pair of tweets he has “an absolute right” as president to do so. Trump’s tweets did not say whether he revealed classified information about the Islamic State, as published reports have said and as a U.S. official told The Associated Press. The official said the information Trump divulged came from a U.S. intelligence partner.
The revelations sent a White House accustomed to chaos reeling anew and drew rare serious criticism of the president from some Republicans. His action raised fresh questions about his handling of classified information and his dealings with Russia, which is widely considered an adversary by many U.S. officials and Western allies.
A senior U.S. official told AP that Trump shared details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. The classified information had been shared with the president by an ally, violating the confidentiality of an intelligence-sharing agreement with that country, the official said.
The official said that Trump boasted about his access to classified intelligence in last week’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. An excerpt from an official transcript of the meeting reveals that Trump told them, “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.”
Trump later was informed that he had broken protocol and White House officials placed calls to the National Security Agency and the CIA looking to minimize any damage. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, would not say which country’s intelligence was divulged.
As president, Trump has the ability to disclose classified information largely as he chooses. Yet his decision to discuss an ally’s information on the Islamic State with other countries could damage his standing with world leaders and lead some countries to start second-guessing their own intelligence-sharing agreements with the U.S.
A senior European intelligence official told the AP his country might stop sharing information with the United States if it confirms that Trump shared classified details with Russian officials. Such sharing “could be a risk for our sources,” the official said. The official spoke only on condition that neither he nor his country be identified, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
McMaster, in a White House briefing, said: “In the context of that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he is engaged.”
He cast some of Trump’s revelations as information that was available from publicly available “open-source reporting” and added that the president did not know the precise source of the intelligence he had shared, suggesting that Trump could not have compromised confidential sources.
The Kremlin dismissed the reports of Trump’s actions as “complete nonsense.”
On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike expressed concern. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the reports “deeply disturbing” and said they could affect the willingness of U.S. allies and partners to share intelligence with the U.S.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the intelligence uproar a distraction from GOP priorities such as tax reform and replacing the health care law.
“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,” he told Bloomberg Business.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for Congress to have immediate access to a transcript of Trump’s meeting with the Russians, saying that if Trump refuses, Americans will doubt that their president is capable of safeguarding critical secrets.
Trump ignored reporters’ questions about whether he disclosed classified information. Following a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump said only that his meeting last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was “very, very successful.”
Asked why the NSA and CIA were put on notice if the revelations were not problematic, McMaster cast the notification as being provided “from an overabundance of caution.”
The disclosure put a source of intelligence on the Islamic State at risk, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the disclosure on Monday.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo was to brief members of the House intelligence committee later Tuesday.
On Monday, McMaster told reporters: “The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation. At no time, 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 revelations could further damage Trump’s already fraught relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies. He’s openly questioned the competency of intelligence officials and challenged their high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election to help him win. His criticism has been followed by a steady stream of leaks to the media that have been damaging to Trump and exposed an FBI investigation into his associates’ possible ties to Russia.
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