Donald Trump has been accused of sharing “highly classified” information with the Russian foreign minister and the country’s ambassador here during a White House meeting last week, but the defiant US president asserted that he has an “absolute right” to do so. Trump had revealed highly classified details to minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the meeting, The Washington Post reported, citing current and former US officials, who said the president’s disclosures jeopardised a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.
“The information the president relayed had been provided by a US partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the US government,” the report said.
Though the US president is allowed to declassify and share classified information at any moment, the issue has sparked a huge uproar over whether Trump compromised national security by disclosing the details to Russia, long considered a hostile country to the US.
The report alleges that Trump shared information about laptops on planes, which was given to the US by an ally who did not give consent for it to be shared with Russia. Reacting to the allegations, Trump tweeted, “As president I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled White House 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 and terrorism,” he said. In another tweet, Trump warned those who were “leaking” information. “I have been asking director Comey and others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the leakers in the intelligence community,” Trump said. Comey, who was leading a probe into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, was fired as FBI director a day before last week’s White House meeting.
During a media interaction with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Trump continued to appear defiant in the face of criticism over the meeting with Russian officials. “We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. Our fight is against ISIS,” Trump said. “So we’re going to have a lot of great success over the next coming years and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible and that’s one of the beautiful things that’s happening with Turkey,” he said.
“The relationship that we have together (US and Turkey), we’ll be unbeatable,” Trump said, side-stepping questions over the meeting with Russian officials. Earlier at a White House briefing, his National Security Adviser H R McMaster defended Trump saying, “Conversation with Russian foreign minister was wholly appropriate with our national security. No compromise with national security.”
“The president was meeting with a foreign minister on terrorist threat. It was wholly appropriate to share the information as a basis for common action against terrorist.
“The president in no way compromised sources and method of national security. National Security is at risk by leaks like this,” said McMaster, who was present at the meeting with Russian officials at the White House. From the very beginning of the Trump presidency, his administration has been hit by a series of leaks. Trump and his team allege that this was being done at the behest of those who are still loyal to the previous Obama government.
The Post has stood by its report, saying the president acknowledges that “facts” were shared with Russian envoys. “Trump’s tweets tried to explain away the news, which emerged late Monday, that he had shared sensitive, ‘code-word’ information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during a White House meeting last week, a disclosure that intelligence officials warned could jeopardise a crucial intelligence source on the Islamic State,” the daily said. The allegations were earlier refuted by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and also by McMaster, who said that there was no discussion of specific threats with the Russians.
Tillerson said: “During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
McMaster has previously said Trump and Lavrov “reviewed common threats from terrorist organisations to include threats to aviation.” “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” He described the story as false to reporters.
“Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” McMaster said.
The report, quoting an unnamed US official, said, “This (the information shared) is code-word information.” Code-word information is a terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies, the daily reported.
Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies,” the newspaper said, adding that following this, US officials have gone into damage-control mode. According to the daily, the sensitive, classified information was given to the US by one of its allies, which had not given it permission to share it with the Russians. The Trump administration has also vehemently denied the allegations. “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced,” said Dina Powell, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy, who also attended the meeting.
But Opposition Democratic party and several lawmakers from Trump’s own Republican party expressed concern over the episode. The Democratic party and its leadership called for appointment of a special prosecutor to probe for links between Trump, his team and the Russians. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that if the news reports are true, Trump has “compromised a key
source of intelligence collection” against the Islamic State and jeopardised the security of the American people.
“Even if President Trump unwittingly blew a highly classified code-word source to the Russians, that would be dangerous enough.
“If the president outed a highly classified code-word source intentionally, that would be even more dangerous,” Pelosi said.
She demanded that Congress must be given a full briefing on the extent of the damage President Trump has done in compromising highly classified code-word intelligence to the Russians.