US President Donald Trump acknowledged Tuesday that he shared information with top Russian envoys at an Oval Office meeting last week, but argued that it was his “absolute right” to do so, despite an outcry about potentially leaking sensitive data.
His early morning tweet appeared to fly in the face of repeated White House denials of a Washington Post report on Monday. The newspaper reported that Trump revealed highly classified information about the Islamic State terrorist group during his talks with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the US on May 10, citing current and former administration officials.
Trump called it his “absolute right” to provide the Russians with facts that could help in the fight against terrorism. “As president, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled WH [White House] meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump wrote.
Trump did not respond to repeated questions by reporters about whether he had shared classified information, but called the talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “very, very successful.” When asked by reporters about the controversy, Trump said the talks focused on cooperation in fighting terrorism, declaring “we’re gonna have a lot of great success over the next coming years.”
National Security Advisor HR McMaster maintained later Tuesday that Trump did not compromise any intelligence sources or methods and his discussions with Russian officials last week were “appropriate.”
McMaster would not discuss whether Trump revealed classified information or not, but said he is not concerned that Trump’s conversation would prompt the source to stop sharing intelligence. “What he discussed was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the sharing of information by the president with any partners with which he’s engaged,” McMaster told reporters.
The New York Times reported that Israel was the source of the intelligence, quoting a current and a former US official familiar with how the United States obtained the information. Neither is identified. The White House would not say that Israel was the source, but spokesman Sean Spicer did stress the importance of the US-Israeli alliance during a news conference.
“We appreciate the strong relationship that we have with Israel with respect to intelligence sharing, and hopefully can continue to grow that bond,” Spicer said, pointing to remarks by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer.
Dermer had told the Times that Israel had “full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship ahead under President Trump.” Trump is scheduled to visit Israel during his first trip abroad as president starting later this week.
Passing on sensitive information gathered by Israel to the Russians raises the possibility that the information could be passed to Iran, Russia’s close ally and Israel’s main threat in the Middle East. Late Monday, the White House blasted the story as “false.”
McMaster Tuesday said he stood by his statement that the “premise is false” because Trump had not had an “inappropriate” conversation. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the story “fake.”
According to the Post, Trump discussed details with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergei Kislyak of a suspected plot by Islamic State involving laptop computers to target aircraft. The newspaper alleged that, by sharing the information with a US adversary, Trump had jeopardized a key intelligence source in the US-led fight against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Trump’s revelations to the Russians included the city within Islamic state-held territory where the unnamed US partner had gleaned the threat information. The Post said it was withholding the city and other details of the plot on the advice of US officials.
The partner that provided the now-exposed information in an intelligence-sharing arrangement had not agreed to the United States passing the information to Russia, it said. The reports have prompted serious concerns among lawmakers and intelligence officials about the president’s handling of classified information.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s tweets suggested he had discussed something of concern and worried about whether allies can trust the US with intelligence. “We immediately have to go into damage mitigation mode,” he said.