Trump’s judgment under fire in light of new Russia controversy
Analysis: Reports of president sharing intelligence could not have come at worse time
Reports that US president Donald Trump shared classified information with Russia during a meeting in the Oval Office last week have renewed focus on his relationship with Russia and raised fresh questions about Trump’s judgment as commander-in-chief.
The Washington Post first reported that the president shared highly sensitive intelligence information about an operation against Islamic State with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak during a meeting last Wednesday, a day after Trump fired FBI chief James Comey.
By Monday evening other news agencies had corroborated the reports, citing current and former US officials.
The reports allege that Trump shared so-called “code word” intelligence – a form of intelligence that requires an additional level of clearance – with Russia’s top foreign policy official. The information was considered so sensitive that it was not shared with other allies or among US officials.
It is understood that the information related to terrorist plans to use laptop bombs, intelligence that has led to the United States considering the introduction of a ban on passengers bringing laptop computers on flights. More specifically, the information may have revealed a specific Islamic State plot, including details on location.
That Trump chose to share this information with a country that is on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict to the United States, and which is under investigation by the FBI for interference in the US election, is extraordinary. Analysts fear that, even if Trump did not disclose sources, methods or operations, identifying the location may allow Russia to deduce which ally was involved.
In addition, Trump’s move to inform Russia of information that was provided to the United States by another country – it was reported on Tuesday that the intelligence came from Israel – risks jeopardising trust between Washington and its allies.
First foreign trip
The controversy, which has unfolded days before Trump departs for the Middle East and Europe on his first foreign trip as president, also overshadowed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the White House on Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning Trump took to Twitter to defend the move – effectively confirming the Washington Post story and declaring that he had the “absolute right” to share the information.
“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 to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump tweeted. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
He repeated this defence in brief comments to the media alongside the Turkish president. “We had a very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia,” he said, predicting “great success” in the fight against Islamic State.
In echoes of last week’s controversy, when the White House initially said that the decision to fire FBI chief James Comey was because of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal, only for the president to contradict this a few days later, Tuesday’s early-morning tweets by the president categorically revised the initial statements put out by the White House.
Trump also revisited familiar arguments used by his administration to respond to allegations of collusion with Russia – focusing on the leaking of the information rather than the substantive issue at hand. “I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community . . .” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Although a secondary issue, the leaking of the information does serve to highlight the dire state of relations between the White House and the US intelligence community, which culminated in the sacking of the FBI chief. Trump previously likened the CIA to “Nazi Germany” in a tweet just days after his inauguration.
The dramatic developments of the past week have raised questions about the internal workings of the White House administration amid reports of tensions between different wings of the Trump administration. While General McMaster, the national security adviser who replaced Mike Flynn, and defence secretary Jim Mattis, are regarded as steady hands, the latest controversy has raised questions as to whether Trump has the capacity to listen to experts and heed advice.
In defending the president’s action as “wholly appropriate” on Tuesday, McMaster said that the president wasn’t aware of where the information came from when he discussed the issue with Russia, a supposition that has alarmed many.
The move to send out McMaster to field questions at an earlier time than had initially been scheduled was seen as an attempt by the White House to calm Republican nerves on Capitol Hill. As Senator Bob Corker put it: “They’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips [with] all that’s happening.”