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President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his right 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 specify whether he revealed classified information about the Islamic State group, as published reports have said and as a U.S. official told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
The White House has pushed back against those reports, but has not denied that classified information was disclosed in the May 10 meeting between Trump and Russian diplomats.
In a pair of tweets, the president responded to a firestorm of criticism triggered by the reports.
“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. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism,” Trump tweeted.
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
Trump shared details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptops on aircraft with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, a senior U.S official told the AP. 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, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly, would not say which country’s intelligence was divulged.
The disclosure put a source of intelligence on the Islamic State at risk, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the disclosure Monday.
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.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman denied the report. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, on Facebook on Tuesday described the reports as “yet another fake.”
The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have declined to comment.
The U.S. official said that Trump boasted about his access to classified intelligence in last week’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. An excerpt of 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,” he said.
Kislyak has been a central player in the snowballing controversy surrounding possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s election meddling.
The revelations drew strong condemnation from Democrats and a rare rebuke of Trump from some Republican lawmakers. White House officials denounced the report, saying the president did not disclose intelligence sources or methods to the Russians, though officials did not deny that classified information was disclosed in the May 10 meeting.
“The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation,” said H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser. “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.
The disclosure also risks harming his credibility with U.S. partners around the world ahead of his first overseas trip. The White House was already reeling from its botched handling of Trump’s decision last week to fire James Comey, the FBI director who was overseeing the Russia investigation.
A European security official said sharing sensitive information could dampen the trust between the United States and its intelligence sharing partners. “It wouldn’t likely stop partners from sharing life-saving intelligence with the Americans, but it could impact the trust that has been built, particularly if sharing such information exposes specific intelligence gathering methods,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Royal Court in Jordan said that King Abdullah II was to speak by telephone with Trump later Tuesday. The revelation also prompted cries of hypocrisy. Trump spent the campaign arguing that his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should be locked up for careless handling of classified information.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also disputed the report. He said Trump discussed a range of subjects with the Russians, including “common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism.” The nature of specific threats was discussed, he said, but not sources, methods or military operations.
The controversy engulfed the White House. Reporters spent much of the evening camped out adjacent to Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office, hoping for answers. At one point, an eagle-eyed reporter spotted a handful of staffers, including Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, walking toward the Cabinet Room.
Muffled yelling was heard coming from the area near the room, but after a reporter tweeted about the noise, press staffers quickly turned up their television volume, blasting the sound to drown out everything else.
Did Trump share classified info with Russians?
McMaster: Trump “in no way compromised any sources or methods” https://t.co/rgDGBEFdBO
— CNN (@CNN) May 16, 2017
Later on Tuesday, Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster insisted that Trump’s revelations to Russian officials about the terrorist threat from the Islamic State group were “wholly appropriate” and amounted to a routine sharing of information.
McMaster, in a White House briefing, added that none of the U.S. officials present for the president’s Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister last week “felt in any way that that conversation was inappropriate.” He used the words “wholly appropriate” nine separate times.
McMaster 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. That typically refers to reporting that’s publicly available, such as news accounts, academic reports or social media.
Still, the White House has not expressly denied that classified information was disclosed in the Oval Office meeting between Trump and Russian diplomats last week. The Kremlin dismissed the reports as “complete nonsense.”
May 16, 12:45 a.m. ET: Updated with McMaster presser
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