Author : GLENN THRUSH and PETER BAKER
Posted : MAY 16, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Trump defended on Tuesday his decision to share sensitive information with senior Russian officials about an Islamic State threat, saying that he had an “absolute right” to do so in the interest of fighting terrorism.
In a series of early-morning posts on Twitter, Mr. Trump did not dispute reports that he might have provided enough details to reveal the source of the information and the manner in which it had been collected. The information about the Islamic State plot came from a Middle Eastern ally and was considered so sensitive that American officials had not shared it widely within their own government or among allies.
“As president,” Mr. Trump wrote, “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 flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Mr. Trump spoke about highly classified intelligence in a White House meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, last week, a current and a former American government official told The New York Times on Monday. The news was first reported by The Washington Post and, soon after, many organizations — including BuzzFeed, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and The Times — quickly published their own accounts of the disclosure.
Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts on Tuesday morning appeared to undercut the carefully worded statements made by his advisers Monday night to try to dispute the original news reports without taking issue with specific facts in them. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said in a statement that the president “did not discuss sources, methods or military operations” with the Russians. Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, likewise told reporters that Mr. Trump had not disclosed intelligence methods or sources.
But The Post and the other news organizations did not report that he had done so. Instead, they focused on the breach of espionage etiquette, and on the possibility that American allies might be discouraged from sharing intelligence with the United States. They also noted Mr. Trump’s tendency to go off script, at times to the chagrin of his advisers.
General McMaster told reporters on Monday that The Post’s account “as reported” was “false,” but on Twitter on Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump made no such assertion and instead sought to justify what he had done.
This has become something of a pattern: On Thursday, Mr. Trump told NBC News that the F.B.I.’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia had been a factor in his decision to fire the bureau’s director, James B. Comey, and that the decision was not related to a recommendation from the deputy attorney general. Those comments undercut the accounts provided by his vice president and other advisers.
In his Tuesday posts on Twitter, Mr. Trump tried to turn attention away from whether he had leaked information to finding those who had disclosed what he had done. “I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” he wrote.
Administration officials were blindsided by the president’s messages early Tuesday and scrambled to reconcile the gap between them and General McMaster’s comments. Mr. Trump’s aides realized that not having General McMaster answer questions Monday night was going to prolong the story into a new day. But they believed they had been hamstrung by administration lawyers about exactly what could be said.
The firestorm comes at a challenging time for Mr. Trump’s besieged team: His national security and foreign policy staffs have been spending much of their time planning for his coming eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe — his first overseas trip as president, and an opportunity, they thought, to reset the narrative of his presidency after last week’s lingering controversy of Mr. Comey’s sudden dismissal.
That came to a crashing halt with the revelations on Monday, with staffers being forced, yet again, to go into damage-control mode. At least one member of Mr. Trump’s team tasked with defending him said the president’s shifting stories and his impulsiveness were making it hard to recruit talented outsiders needed to staff the still short-handed West Wing staff.
The story touched off a flurry of condemnations from Democrats who recalled how Mr. Trump had called for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned for mishandling classified information by using a private email server. Even a number of Republicans expressed varying levels of concern and called for an accounting of what had happened.
“I think a line was crossed and we need to know now, in Congress, just exactly what was told and what does this mean for the future of information sharing with allies and for the troops who are serving abroad,” Representative Eric Swalwell of California, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said on the same show that General McMaster’s statement was not actually a denial. “When I look at McMaster’s quote, it’s a pretty technical quote,” Mr. Sasse said. “I think it’s actually something quite different from a full rebuttal of the story.”
But other Republicans said they were willing to reserve judgment. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday morning that he was inclined to believe the White House version of events over the news media, which he said had no way of knowing the entire story. “They were not in the room,” he said in an interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.
“I expect the administration will brief the Congress more fully,” he added. “But I have much greater confidence in H. R. McMaster on the record, in front of cameras, than I do anonymous sources in the media.”
Still, there was evident fatigue among Republicans with the latest episode.
“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, said on Bloomberg Television.
The episode fueled questions about Mr. Trump’s relationship with Moscow at the same time that the F.B.I. and congressional committees are investigating whether his associates cooperated with Russian meddling in last year’s election. Mr. Trump has repeatedly dismissed such suspicions as false stories spread by Democrats to explain their election defeat. But his friendly approach toward President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in spite of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and other actions has stirred controversy.
Mr. Trump met with Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kislyak in the Oval Office in response to a personal request by Mr. Putin and despite the fact that President Barack Obama had refused to invite the Russian foreign minister into the White House after Russia annexed Crimea and stoked a military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
The Post reported that Mr. Trump had described details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.
Last week, American officials said they might move to ban laptops from carry-on baggage on all flights from Europe to the United States — a change that would inconvenience many business travelers, who would be forced to check computers in their luggage.
The issue is scheduled to be the subject of a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon in Brussels between Elaine C. Duke, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security, and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Union’s commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship.
Russia dismissed the reports on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that Mr. Trump had given classified information to Russian officials, and she denigrated American news reports of the disclosure as “fake.”
“I just landed in Madrid,” the spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, wrote on Facebook during a work trip to Spain. “I turned on the phone, and there were dozens of messages. ‘Maria Vladimirovna, is it true Trump revealed the most important secret?’ ”
Ms. Zakharova called the report “the latest fake” and disparaged the newspapers that published it. “Guys, you are again reading American newspapers? You should not read them. They can be used in various ways, but there’s no need to read them — lately, this is not only harmful, but dangerous.”
She did not specify in what ways the newspapers should be used.
Ms. Zakharova said she had predicted last Thursday, the day after the meeting, that American news organizations would be preparing a “sensation” about the meeting. The news media’s plan included, she wrote, publishing secret photographs to “give this latest fake grounding and legitimacy.”
“This part of the information campaign we destroyed, having published photographs in accordance with all laws of professional ethics.”
She did not elaborate.
Both Russia and the United States are battling the Islamic State, but they are backing different sides in the Syrian civil war.