The Trump administration hunkered down Monday evening following a report that President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information about the Islamic State during an already controversial Oval Office visit by Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States.
Top Cabinet-level officials tried to contain the damage caused by the report, but their efforts were overwhelmed by questions about White House credibility, including discredited statements about the firing of FBI director James Comey.
Congressional Democrats were quick to demand an investigation into what Trump told the visiting Russian officials. Republicans were slower to respond, but they, too, expressed concern, often in similar words.
“I have no idea if it’s true. If it is, it would be very troubling,” Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an emailed response to a question.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, also used “troubling” to describe the development. “I want to learn more about what occurred and what was shared, but if true, this report is troubling,” he said in an email to McClatchy.
“The importance of carefully handling classified information was one of the big lessons of 2016,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. “All leaders should be held to same standard.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official called the disclosure “an intelligence officer’s worst nightmare.”
“I will tell you that I for one fully expected something like this to happen given the president’s seeming lack of discipline about his comments,” the former official said. “Revealing information about ISIS collected by another country's intelligence service, to a third country, is just nuts.”
The president, because of his ultimate authority, did not do anything illegal. He did something arguably worse.
Former senior U.S. intelligence official
The Washington Post touched off the controversy Monday afternoon by reporting that Trump had disclosed intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their meeting with Trump last week.
According to the Post, the information had been provided by an American ally through an intelligence sharing arrangement so sensitive that the details of the information had not been shared widely among American officials.
One U.S. official familiar with the issue said Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
What specifically was revealed is murky, but the Post reported that the U.S. partner had not given permission for the information to be shared with Russia, a major breach of intelligence protocol. After the meeting, White House officials reached out to the CIA and the National Security Agency to explain what happened.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters gathered outside the White House that the report was false, but the wording of his denial addressed an aspect of the situation that the Post story had not, leaving in doubt whether the information itself had been revealed.
“At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed,” McMaster said. “I was in the room, it didn’t happen.” He offered no further comment and did not take questions.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s offered a denial that seemed to suggest some information had been shared. He said the meeting with the foreign minister covered a broad range of subjects, including terrorism threats.
“During that exchange the nature of specific threats was discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations,” he said.
I have no idea if it’s true. If it is, it would be very troubling.
Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C
The new controversy came even as there was no letup in the conflict Trump stirred last week with the firing of Comey and as Trump prepares for his first foreign trip, which include stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. On Tuesday, he’s to meet with the president of Turkey, whose relationship with Russia has been warming even as U.S. relations turn frosty over the battle against the Islamic State.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is investigating Russia meddling in last year’s election, flayed Trump over the report on Twitter.
“If true, this is slap in the face to the intel community,” he tweeted. “Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said he will call McMaster to a classified briefing to find out what specifically was revealed.
“This certainly raises questions about whether the president recognizes the serious implications of disclosing such sensitive information to an adversary,” Engel said.
While Washington shook, Republicans addressed the issue carefully.
“We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration,” said Doug Andres, spokesman for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Trump appeared to be “boasting” to the Russians about information of a potential threat.
“I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president said, according to the report.
Concerned officials feared Trump may not grasp the potential consequences of mishandling such sensitive information that could inhibit intelligence partners ability to uncover future threats.
“It is all kind of shocking,” a former senior U.S. official told the Post. “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”
It’s unlikely Trump did anything illegal. The president has the power to declassify any information he chooses. While the information was considered classified, Trump essentially declassified the information by sharing it with the Russian officials.
The former U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy that legality was not really the issue.
“The president, because of his ultimate authority, did not do anything illegal. He did something arguably worse. He did something potentially damaging to U.S. national security,” the official said.
The alleged disclosure comes as the Trump administration faces increasing pressure over ties to Russia. Last week, Trump fired Comey as he was leading an investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian officials during the election campaign.
It was during his visit to the White House that Lavrov had a brief exchange with reporters, and appeared to make light of the firing when a reporter asked if it cast a shadow on the talks.
“Was he fired?” Lavrov asked. The reporter answered “yes.” Lavrov continued: “You are kidding. You are kidding.”
Trump has struggled with credibility challenges since he took office. Sharing a partner’s sensitive information with the Russians only raises more questions about whether the Trump administration can be trusted with vital information.
Coupled with the controversial firing of the FBI director, the controversy is likely to complicate Trump’s first foreign trip with world leaders, which includes several high-level multilateral meetings with European allies.
European allies and their intelligence agencies were already wary about whether the Trump administration could be trusted with their sensitive intelligence.
Trump has argued that the United States and Russia could benefit by working together to fight against ISIS. But the two superpowers also have competing interests in other parts of the world, most notably Syria, where Russia has been a key supporter of the government of President Bashar Assad.
Several European allies remain concerned about Russia, the former Cold War foe whose security services still reward agents who manage to flip U.S. or other Western intelligence agents to become moles. Britain, among others, has been watching carefully to see whether the U.S. government remains a reliable partner in spying on Russia.
Given the Trump administration’s reticence to criticize anything Russian, some retired senior U.S. intelligence officers also have argued that allies are likely to evaluate what information they provide the CIA.
Some of the most renowned Russian spies included Aldrich Ames, the former CIA counterintelligence agent who was unmasked and arrested in 1994, and Robert Hanssen, the FBI spy hunter who was caught in 2001 at a drop spot in Virginia.
Experts said in January that the British would likely shut down sharing partnerships if they came to believe there were serious leaks from the United States to the Russians.
U.S. intelligence agencies have no closer allies than their counterparts in Britain, which include MI6, the secret intelligence service – employer of the fictional James Bond – and the Government Communications Headquarters, known as the GCHQ, which sweeps the skies for electronic signals.
It is part of the slightly broader, but little known alliance known as the Five Eyes, which groups intelligence agencies of the U.S. and Britain with agencies in the English-speaking nations of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the disclosure could jeopardize such relationships.
“Given that the subject of this intelligence is reported to be a threat posed by ISIS, any compromise would be of the greatest seriousness,” Schiff said. “That the Russians would be the potential recipients of this intelligence and may be able to determine its source is all the more problematic, since the Russian interest in Syria and elsewhere is, in many respects, deeply antithetical to our own.”
A former intelligence official who handled high-level intelligence on Russia told the Post that Trump provided enough information that Russian spy services could unravel their methods.
“Russia could identify our sources or techniques,” the senior U.S. official said.
Tim Johnson, Matthew Schofield, Lesley Clark, and Lindsay Wise contributed to this article.