As reports circulated Monday evening that President Trump disclosed highly sensitive classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their meeting in the Oval Office last Wednesday, Trump’s aides went to work tamping down the story.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster didn’t deny the entirety of the Washington Post’s explosive report, which was later confirmed by a number of other outlets. But both denied Trump discussed intelligence sources, methods, or military operations with the Russian officials.
Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell went a step further. In a statement, she said, “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”
But in a Tuesday morning tweetstorm, Trump didn’t deny anything. Instead, he said he had the “absolute right” to share “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” with Russians.
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
As Glenn Thrush of the New York Times pointed out, Trump’s tweets sit uneasily with Powell’s flat-out denial of the story and with McMaster’s statement that military operations “that were not already known publicly” never came up.
Trump does NOT directly contradict McMaster but there's big gap: HRM said everything discussed already public, Trump said he shared 'facts'
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) May 16, 2017
Indeed, as president, Trump can declassify information as he sees fit. The problem is that according to the Post’s reporting, the “highly classified information” Trump shared about a possible plot involving the use of laptop computers on airlines “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.”
Not only that, but sharing the information in question — which was “provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government” — reportedly violated an agreement U.S. officials had made.
“The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State,” the Post reported.
Trump’s partial acknowledgement of the story also differs from Russia’s official account. On Tuesday, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, posted on Facebook that reports about Trump sharing classified intelligence with Lavrov and Kislyak were “yet another fake.”
The president’s Tuesday morning tweets represent the second time he undercut his aides in less than a week. During an interview last Thursday, Trump provided a rationale for the firing of FBI Director James Comey that was contradicted what his aides had been saying since Comey’s abrupt dismissal was announced two days earlier.
As reports swirled about the contradiction, Trump tweeted last Friday that his spokespeople couldn’t always be trusted to convey accurate information.
As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak — a meeting American media was prohibited from covering, and which may have represented a security breach — came a day after Trump fired the FBI director amid an active bureau investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
And while Trump made a point of noting that his Oval Office meeting with the Russians was “openly scheduled,” the White House never disclosed Kislyak’s participation. His presence in the Oval Office last Wednesday wouldn’t have been known if it wasn’t for photos of the meeting published by Russian state-run media.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lost his job after news emerged he had misled administration officials about his pre-inauguration communications with Kislyak — communications we now know had to do with sanctions the Obama administration placed on the Putin regime. Attorney General Jeff Sessions later promised to recuse himself from any investigations related to the Trump campaign’s alleged contact with Russia after he admitted he had made false statements about his communications with Kislyak during his confirmation hearing.
But Sessions appeared to violate his promise by playing a role in the ouster of Comey, who was overseeing the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.