WASHINGTON - The White House offered shifting explanations for President Donald Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information to senior Russian diplomats last week, a scattered defense that began with an early-morning Trump tweet that he had the “absolute right” to share “facts.”
Administration officials went from denouncing the Washington Post article as “false” to either confirming or declining to challenge nearly every key aspect of the account, which described how Trump’s sharing of sensitive details about a terrorist plot jeopardized access to a stream of intelligence from a critical U.S. ally.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia … which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline safety,” Trump said in two postings to his Twitter account, the first at 7 a.m. He then shifted the focus from his conduct to prod the FBI “to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.”
Trump also enlisted National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to help contain the fallout from the latest damaging revelations about the administration’s relationship with Russia. Trump revealed the classified intelligence in a White House meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador one day after firing FBI Director James Comey over frustration with the bureau’s investigation of any ties between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, McMaster refused to say whether Trump had shared classified information with the representatives from Moscow, falling back on a refrain that Trump’s disclosures were “wholly appropriate.”
“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’s engaged,” he said.
He did not explain how sharing classified information with Russian officials advanced U.S. interests. The long-standing adversaries sometimes alert one another to security threats, but otherwise engage in little if any intelligence cooperation. Indeed, U.S. spy agencies earlier this year concluded that their Russian counterparts engaged in an unprecedented covert influence campaign to disrupt the 2016 election.
Current and former U.S. officials said that Trump went well beyond outlining basic threat information in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Trump described steps that ISIS was taking to pursue a plot involving the use of laptop computers on civilian aircraft, officials said. He discussed measures the U.S. has taken to suppress the threat, including military operations in Syria. Trump also identified the city in the ISIS territory where the U.S. ally had been monitoring the plot through a valuable and ongoing stream of intelligence.
Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies,” according to one current U.S. official.
Trump did not identify the particular method of intelligence gathering or the partner nation. But officials cited concern that Moscow emerged from the meeting with clues that Russian spy agencies could use to zero in on the U.S. ally’s sources and methods.
The Washington Post withheld details about the intelligence-sharing arrangement and plot at the request of White House officials, who cited concern over national security. By Tuesday, however, the New York Times and other news organizations identified the partner country as Israel.
Israel has in the past complained about the United States’ inability to safeguard secrets. In a statement, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said that despite the disclosures, “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.”
On Capitol Hill, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed concern and alarm about the president’s sensitive disclosures.
“As an intelligence officer by training, I know firsthand the life and death implications of safeguarding classified information,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a freshman lawmaker and former Marine intelligence officer, tweeted.