President Donald Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russian officials isn’t the first time his team’s handling of secrets has raised alarm bells. In the weeks before Trump took office, Obama administration officials were so concerned by the Trump transition team’s handling of classified documents that they moved swiftly to exert more control over the sensitive materials, according to two former U.S. officials.
The officials said transition officials removed classified materials from secure rooms and carried them between buildings in Washington without permission. Worried about keeping tabs on the highly sensitive material, the Obama administration officials set new limits on some classified information and explicitly barred Trump aides from viewing that material in their transition offices.
The Associated Press previously reported on Obama officials’ concerns about the transition team’s handling of classified material as the Trump team prepared to take the reins of government. The new details about their concerns come amid mounting questions about whether Trump himself has been careless with the nation’s secrets.
Trump last week shared highly classified information with senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting, putting at risk a source of intelligence on the Islamic State group, according to a current U.S. official. Trump has said he has a “right” to share information. White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump’s actions were “wholly appropriate.”
The White House did not respond to questions about the transition’s handling of classified material. The former U.S. officials requested anonymity in order to discuss the handling of classified information.
The Obama officials said the Trump national security transition team did not follow protocol. The transition team was allowed to request and view classified material in secure rooms both at their government-run offices in Washington and at the White House. But Obama administration officials soon learned that Trump’s aides were taking classified information out of the secure room at transition headquarters without approval.
One official said it appeared the transition aides were moving the information from the transition offices to the White House, a distance of just a few blocks. The Obama administration was not aware that the information was being brought to unsecure facilities or given to any third parties, but the officials said simply moving the documents without prior approval raised serious concerns.
Under the new policy implemented by the Obama administration, officials printed materials requested by the transition team at the White House and only allowed the documents to be viewed on site. One U.S. official said the Obama administration was particularly concerned about the handling of documents related to the government’s contingency plans for crises. That official said the Obama administration also worried that Trump advisers may have been making copies of classified information, but it’s unclear whether the outgoing officials were able to verify those concerns.
The matter has opened Trump up to charges of hypocrisy. As a candidate, Trump repeatedly lambasted Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information while serving as secretary of state and vowed to put her in jail. He called her “grossly incompetent” and said her decision to transmit classified information on her personal email and private internet server disqualified her for the presidency.
Former FBI Director James Comey called Clinton and her State Department advisers “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information, but he did not recommend pursuing criminal charges. Last week, the president fired Comey, who had been overseeing the FBI’s ongoing investigation into whether Trump’s campaign played a role in Russia’s election meddling.
Trump has faced criticism on this front before. In February, while Trump was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Florida resort, they discussed their response to a North Korean missile launch while eating dinner in the resort’s public dining room. Diners were able to snap photos of the discussions and the leaders reviewing documents. The White House said Trump and Abe did not review classified information in the public setting.