(RFE/RL) — U.S. President Donald Trump has defended his “absolute right” to share information with Russian officials amid controversy over classified information.
Trump’s comments, made in series of Twitter posts on May 16, appeared to confirm U.S. media reports that he had disclosed highly classified material to Russia’s top diplomat during a meeting at the White House last week.
The disclosure, which may have jeopardized intelligence sourcing about the Islamic State extremist group, further roiled lawmakers and policymakers in Washington still grappling with the fallout from Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey a day before the meeting with the Russians.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. [White House] meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” he wrote
“Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism,” he added, using an acronym for the IS group.
The Kremlin described the reports published by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters, and other media late on May 15 as “complete nonsense.”
But congressional Democrats and some Republicans condemned the reported disclosures as “troubling,” “dangerous,” and “reckless.”
“Reports that this information was provided by a U.S. ally and shared without its knowledge sends a troubling signal to America’s allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future,” John McCain, an influential Republican senator and vocal critic of Kremlin policies, said in a statement on May 16.
The media reports, which cited anonymous officials, said the information Trump relayed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during their May 10 meeting had been provided by a U.S. partner country through a highly sensitive intelligence-sharing arrangement.
The reports quoted the sources as saying that the partner had not given Washington permission to share the material with Moscow, and that Trump’s alleged decision to do so jeopardized cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of IS.
During his Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, Trump reportedly went off-script and began describing details about an IS threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft, reports said.
They said that in his conversations with the Russian officials, Trump boasted about his knowledge of the looming threats, telling them he was briefed on “great intel every day.”
While discussing classified matters would be illegal for most people, the president has broad authority to declassify government secrets, making it unlikely that Trump’s disclosures broke the law.
After the reports of Trump’s disclosures came out, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, denied that anything improper took place.
“The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” McMaster told reporters at the White House.
“The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” said McMaster, who participated in the meeting.
“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 added.
“During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed, among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism,” Tillerson said. “During that exchange the nature of specific threats [was] discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
Neither McMaster nor Tillerson appears to have directly addressed the allegation that classified information was revealed.
U.S. Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that, if the allegations were true, that would be a “slap in the face” to the U.S. intelligence community.
“Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians,” Warner said on Twitter.
The second-most-senior Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, called the reported disclosures “dangerous” and “reckless.”
Тhe Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, told reporters that the Trump White House “has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order.”
“The shame of it is there’s a really good national security team in place and there are good, productive things that are under way through them and through others,” Corker said. “But the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline…it creates a worrisome environment.”
On May 16 in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the media reports, saying, “We don’t want to have anything do to with this nonsense. It’s complete nonsense, not a subject to be denied or confirmed.”
In an acerbic Facebook post, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested that the reports were “the latest fake,” but did not comment directly on their substance.
In response to what she said was a wave of requests for comment, she wrote: “Guys, have you been reading the American papers again? You shouldn’t do that.”