Photo: Donald Trump with Russian Foreign Miniter Sergei Lavrov (left) and the Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak at the White House last week
In an astonishing report that has stunned Washington political circles, the President has been accused of “sharing highly classified information with Russian officials.” The report in the Washington Post claims that Mr Trump shared classified intelligence material on the Islamic State with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak at a meeting at the Oval Office last week – the day after Mr Trump fired his FBI director James Comey. President Trump claimed that he fired Mr Comey because of his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of private email servers last year but later admitted that the FBI’s investigation into his election campaigns’ links with Russia played a part. When Mr Trump met with Mr Lavrov and Mr Kislyak the following day they joked about the firing. It now seems possible that the President was also sharing code-word classified information with them.
The report claims that Mr Trump shared information regarding a plot by Islamic State to use laptops as bombs on planes. He is also said to have revealed the city in which this intelligence information was detected. The information had been given to the United States by an unnamed American ally, who presumably neither gave permission or had an expectation that it would be shared with the Russians. President Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian President Vladimir Putin. He often called for co-operation with Russia over the fight against Islamic State and would defend the Russians tactics against Islamic State despite Western powers opposition to it. The report suggests that although it is illegal for anyone in the United States to share classified information, the President has the power to declassify material and therefore it would be unlikely he could be prosecuted. That said, it brings into question again his judgement and his credibility as President.
Reaction, concern and condemnation have been swift. One Washington official said: “This is code-word information. [Trump] revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.” Code-word information refers to one of the highest categories of classified information. Democrat Senator Chris Murphy was disturbed by the allegations: “Another in a very disturbing trend of careless behaviour by this administration. If this story is true, it’s another brick in the wall of a really, really troubling connection between Trump and the Russian government.”
The Washington Post quoted a former US counter-intelligence officer, who said: “Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” while Republican Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain said: “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information but the president does have the right to do that.” Mr McCain’s Republican colleague Lindsey Graham added: “I have no idea if it’s true. If it is, it would be very troubling. I’m not going to comment any further.”
The White House has been trying to control the fallout from the Washington Post report. The National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster, told the Washington Post: “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organisations to include threats to aviation. [… At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” Mr McMaster also later told reporters that “at no time” were intelligence sources or methods discussed at the meeting – which was off limits to all news media (with the exception it seems of a Russian photographer who took some pictures, including the one above). Mr McMaster emphasised the point by saying: “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed, among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism.” He added: “During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
These statements, however, can be seen as misleading as the Washington Post report never suggested that Mr Trump had discussed methods or sources, but that by mentioning the city from which the source intelligence came could put that source in danger. The White House refused to give any more information on the meeting with the Russians last week but some US officials were confirming the report even as the White House issued denials and condemnation continued.
The Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement: “Revealing classified information at this level is extremely dangerous and puts at risk the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country. […] The President owes the intelligence community, the American people, and Congress a full explanation.” The Democrat leader in the House of Representatives told a Congress briefing: “On the extent of the damage President Trump has done in compromising highly classified code-word intelligence to the Russians. Even if President Trump unwittingly blew a highly classified code-word source to the Russians, that would be dangerous enough, […] If the president outed a highly classified code-word source intentionally, that would be even more dangerous.”
The senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, remarked: “If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources and methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians,” while the Democratic National Committee said in a statement: “Russia no longer has to spy on us to get information – they just ask President Trump and he spills the beans with highly classified information that jeopardizes our national security and hurts our relationships with allies […] If Trump weren’t president, his dangerous disclosure to Russia could end with him in handcuffs.”
These are extremely disturbing allegations against the President. A former Harvard professor – who taught at the university for 50 years – said of the allegation: “This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president. Let’s not minimize it. Comey affair now in the wastebasket of history.” Although Trump is unlikely to be prosecuted, even if it could be proven that he had given classified information to the Russians, it is another sign of his ever-decreasing credibility as President of the United States and that he is perhaps in a “downward spiral” and is losing control of his White House. Republican Senator Bob Corker, on this idea, said: “The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order, […] Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.”
Later today President Trump responded to the report personally, saying that he had shared information and had the “absolute right to do so,” which as President he does. He can declassify information of his choosing and any time he chooses. He explained further: “As president, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled White House meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety, […] Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against Isis and terrorism.” Of course, he shared his thoughts on Twitter. His tweets, however, completely contradict his own officials who flatly denied the Washington Post report. Trump’s National Security Advisor, H R McMaster had to revise his earlier comments: “What I’m saying is that the premise of the article was false – that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security,” then argued that the real threat came from the leaks to the press.
Mr McMaster wouldn’t confirm or deny whether the material shared was actually classified but in a roundabout way admitted that President Trump had named the Syrian city where the intelligence on Islamic State originated from, but claimed that was “nothing you wouldn’t know from open source.” He also suggested that the information revealed was “appropriate to the conversation” and “in the context of the conversation.”
The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, echoed on Facebook H R McMaster’s blaming the media when she said that the reports were “yet another fake,” and recommended that people should not read American papers.
You have to feel some sympathy for H R McMaster (above right with Sean Spicer), a Lieutenant General and a “widely admired National Security adviser” – as the New York Times described him. He took part in a hastily convened press conference to deny that Trump had released any classified information to the Russians only for the President to seemingly contradict him the following morning in off-the-cuff remarks on Twitter. Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times today offered some free advice to him and other Trump aides – quit while you can. Republican strategist John Weaver tweeted in response to Trump’s tweets that “General McMaster spent decades defending this nation, earning his integrity and honour. Trump squandered it in less than 12 hours,” while David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W Bush commented: “How does McMaster not resign today? That thing he said ‘did not happen’ the president has just defended doing.”
The New York Times article suggests that the President’s aides must be doing “moral and intellectual contortions” in order to serve President Trump and that this is extracting, or will extract, a heavy cost to their dignity and reputation. As Ms. Goldberg says: “To serve this president is to be diminished.” She also suggests this is not limited to the high-profile names such as Lt. Gen. McMaster, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein, but that: “Lesser-known figures will also probably find that their time in the administration has hindered, rather than helped, their career prospects.” Ms. Goldberg quotes Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean who he told her: “You don’t find people who mentioned they worked at the Nixon White House unless they were high enough and conspicuous and had to admit it.”
The irony of all today’s revelations is that Mr Trump has often been highly critical of those who release classified information, saying earlier this year: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American.” He also was scathing during the election campaign and since on Hillary Clinton’s use of private email servers while Secretary of State which, he suggested, could lead to potential leaking of classified information. I guess the irony will be lost on the President.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador – washingtonpost.com – 15 May 2017 – by Greg Miller & Gregg Jaffe
- Lawmakers express shock and concern about Trump disclosure of classified information – washingtonpost.com – 15 May 2017 – by Elsie Viebeck, Mike DeBonis & Ed O’Keefe
- Trump Revealed Highly Classified Intelligence to Russia, in Break With Ally, Officials Say – nytimes.com – 15 May 2017 – by Matthew Rosenberg & Eric Schmitt
- Donald Trump ‘shared highly classified information with Russian officials’ – theguardian.com – 16 May 2017 – by Sabrina Saddiqui & Ben Jacobs in Washington
- Donald Trump ‘revealed highly classified information’ to Russian officials in Oval Office – independent.co.uk – 16 May 2017 – by Andrew Buncombe, Emily Shugerman & David Usborne
- Donald Trump leak allegations the ‘most serious charge ever made against a sitting president’, says former Harvard law professor – independent.co.uk – 16 May 2017 – by Katie Forster
- Donald Trump is in a ‘downward spiral’ following Russia leak report, says Republican senator – independent.co.uk – 16 May 2017 – by Emily Shugerman
- Trump: I shared information with Russia and I had ‘absolute right’ to do so – theguardian.com – 16 May 2017 – by Amanda Holpuch in New York, Sabrina Siddiqui and Julian Borger in Washington
- Donald Trump shared information with Russia on the spur of the moment, says White House – independent.co.uk – 16 May 2017 – by Andrew Buncombe in New York
- European official says their country might stop sharing intelligence with US if Trump leaked to Russia – independent.co.uk – 16 May 2017 – by Andrew Buncombe in New York
- Free Advice to Trump Aides: Quit While You Can – nytimes.com – 16 May 2017 – by Michelle Goldberg