Trump: ‘I have the absolute right’ to share classified intelligence
US president defends decision to disclose classified information to Russian officials
US president Donald Trump has defended his move to share classified intelligence information with Russia in a series of early-morning tweets.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled WH meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Mr Trump tweeted.
“Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
He also defended the move during questions at a White House event with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, saying: “We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia.
“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.”
While the president can legally share classified information, the revelations that Mr Trump disclosed classified information provided to the US by an ally to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov last week during a meeting with senior Russian officials in the Oval Office has astounded the political establishment and risks jeopardising relations between the US and its allies.
It is understood that the information shared was related to terrorist plans to detonate laptop bombs, intelligence that has led the US to consider the introduction of a ban on passengers bringing laptop computers on flights.
More specifically, the information may have revealed a specific Islamic State (Isis) plot, including details on location.
The allegations were first reported by the Washington Post.
US national security adviser HR McMaster said on Tuesday that Mr Trump did not have an inappropriate conversation or one that caused a lapse in national security when he met with senior Russian officials last week at the White House.
“I stand by my statement that I made yesterday,” Mr McMaster told a White House briefing.
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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
I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
“What I’m saying is really the premise of that [Washington Post] article was false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.”
Mr McMaster had previously told reporters at the White House that “the story that came out . . . as reported is false”, adding that during the White House meeting the officials reviewed a range of common threats, including to civil aviation.
“At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. The president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known . . . I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” he said.
The White House also released a statement from US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who said the Oval Office meeting focused on counterterrorism, and from deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, who called the Washington Post story false.
Still, the news triggered concern in Congress.
The Senate’s number-two Democrat, Dick Durbin, called Mr Trump’s conduct “dangerous” and “reckless”.
Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Senate foreign relations committee, called the allegations “very, very troubling” if true.
“Obviously, they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to come to grips with all that’s happening,” he said of the White House.
The latest controversy came as Mr Trump’s administration reels from the fallout over his abrupt dismissal of former FBI director James Comey and amid congressional calls for an independent investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
A US official said the intelligence discussed by Mr Trump in his meeting with Mr Lavrov was classified “Top Secret” and held in a secure “compartment” to which only a handful of intelligence officials have access.
After Mr Trump disclosed the information, in a manner which one of the officials described as spontaneous, officials immediately called the CIA and the National Security Agency, both of which have agreements with a number of allied intelligence services across the world, and informed them what had happened.
While the US president has the authority to disclose even the most highly classified information at will, in this case he did so without consulting the ally that provided it, which threatens to jeopardise a long-standing intelligence-sharing agreement, the official said.
Since taking office in January, Mr Trump has been involved in a number of controversies, complaining on the first day about news coverage of his inauguration crowds; charging his predecessor, former US president Barack Obama, with wiretapping, and just last week firing the FBI director who was overseeing an investigation into potential ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.
Mr Trump, a Republican who has called allegations of links between his campaign team and Russia a “total scam”, has sharply criticised his 2016 election rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, for her handling of classified information while secretary of state, when she used a private email server.
The FBI concluded that no criminal charges against Ms Clinton were warranted, but Mr Comey said she and her colleagues had been “careless” with classified information.
In his conversations with the Russian officials, Mr Trump appeared to be boasting about his knowledge of the looming threats, telling them he was briefed on “great intel every day”, an official with knowledge of the exchange said, according to the Post.
Some US officials have told Reuters they have been concerned about disclosing highly classified intelligence to Mr Trump.
One official, who requested anonymity to discuss dealing with the president, said last month: “He has no filter; it’s in one ear and out the mouth.”
One of the officials with knowledge of Mr Trump’s meeting with the Russians called the timing of the disclosure “particularly unfortunate”, as Mr Trump prepares for a White House meeting on Tuesday with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, an ally in the fight against Isis.
Mr Trump’s first foreign trip also begins later this week and includes a stop in Saudi Arabia and a May 25th Nato meeting in Brussels to be attended by other important US allies. He also has stops planned in Israel and the Vatican.
Additional reporting: Reuters