President Trump on Tuesday defended his right to share "facts" about terrorism and airline safety with top Russian diplomats, amid reports that Israel supplied the once-secret information at the heart of the latest furor to engulf the White House.
Trump is under fire after reports that he revealed highly classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in their Oval Office meeting last week, in a way that they could identify secret sources and methods, and potentially compromise a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State terror group.
The New York Times said Israel was the partner country to provide the intelligence, which had to do with plans by the Islamic State to use laptop computers as weapons, and was so sensitive it had been withheld from allies and under close hold even within the U.S. government.
Trump, who is headed to Israel as part of his first foreign trip that begins later this week, explained his rationale early Tuesday.
"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 pair of tweets. "Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
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....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Tuesday that Trump's discussion with Russian officials was "wholly appropriate to that conversation" and did not endanger national security.
Notably, neither Trump nor his advisers – including McMaster – have explicitly denied the president shared classified intelligence.
While McMaster described the Post story as "false" on Monday, one day later, he clarified that "the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security."
American presidents have the power to unilaterally disclose any material — even the most secret intelligence — without going through any kind of formal process, or worrying about prosecution. While Trump is correct to say he has an "absolute right" to share any information he wants, experts say that strategy can be risky — especially because allies could lose their trust in the U.S. ability to keep secrets and might stop sharing valuable intelligence with their American counterparts.
Ignoring questions about the release of classified intelligence, Trump later told reporters he had "a very, very successful meeting" with Lavrov, and "our fight is against ISIS."
Lawmakers, including some Republicans, were not convinced, saying Trump's apparent talk about secret counter-terrorism operations could have exposed sources trying to help the United States. It "sends a troubling signal to America’s allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump is missing the point when he cites the right to discuss sensitive information. "Mr. President," Schiff tweeted, "this isn't about your 'rights,' but your responsibilities. You could jeopardize our sources, relationships and security."
Mr. President, this isn't about your "rights," but your responsibilities. You could jeopardize our sources, relationships and security. pic.twitter.com/QwnzI7Mdgv— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 16, 2017
As Washington debated whether Trump's own disclosures were appropriate, the president in a separate tweet protested news leaks about his administration — presumably in response to the anonymous sources in the Post story.
Making a reference to former FBI director James Comey, whom he fired last week, Trump said, "I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community."
I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
Lawmakers, meanwhile, said it's disturbing that Trump discussed any intelligence with officials from Russia, a country under investigation by U.S. authorities over allegations it interfered with last year's presidential election by hacking Democratic political organizations.
While Trump maintains he wants a better relationship with Russia, members of Congress have criticized Moscow for its role in the Syria civil war, saying it is helping Bashar al-Assad's government kill his opponents in the name of fighting the Islamic State terrorism — and at the same time destabilizing an array of Western governments.
"It's not helpful that this was the Russians," said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., speaking about the disclosures on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday. "It's just weird."
Trump's early morning defense of sharing information with the Russians appeared to differ in tone from ones offered by aides who the night earlier declared the story to be "false."
"The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation," said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. "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."
As Trump prepares for his first foreign trip for the Middle East and Europe, lawmakers from both parties demanded a full accounting of the conversation with the Russian diplomats that some feared could lead to exposure of confidential informants helping U.S. intelligence officials counter the Islamic State.
“If the report is true, it is very disturbing," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Revealing classified information at this level is extremely dangerous and puts at risk the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country."
The latest incident comes just a week after Trump fired Comey. Critics accused him of seeking to short-circuit an investigation into whether Trump campaign associates colluded with Russians who sought to influence last year's election.
For its part, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who has also denied allegations that Russia interfered in last year's presidential election, denounced the latest Post story as "fake." And Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "we do not want to have anything to do with this nonsense. This is utter nonsense. It is not something to either confirm or deny."
Meanwhile, Republicans at home feel frustrated by the onslaught of news stories that give the appearance the White House is out of control.
"Obviously they're in a downward spiral right now," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "and they've got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening."