The revelation that President Donald Trump had disclosed classified intelligence to Russian officials, apparently without discussing with advisers whether it should be shared, has even some of his strongest allies uncertain whether the president can be trusted with other nations’ classified information.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and a longtime Trump ally, started what appeared to be a Republican break with the Trump administration Monday evening, describing the reported security breach as the beginning of a “downward spiral.”
On Tuesday, when asked whether Trump could be trusted with foreign intelligence, Corker paused, backed away from reporters, shrugged, then held out his hands in front of him in a pleading gesture and said: “Sure.”
Others were not so sure. One country warned that it might stop sharing intelligence with the United States if Trump really had given classified information to the Russian diplomats, according to The Associated Press. An Israeli intelligence officer told BuzzFeed News that the sharing of the intelligence, which reportedly had originated with Israel, was Israel’s “worst fears confirmed.”
Caught on its heels Monday, the White House regrouped Tuesday and took to the offensive, blasting the reports and raising again the specter of a so-called deep state of rogue intelligence officers who are working to undermine Trump’s presidency.
Trump, who originally expressed skepticism about the value of the daily presidential intelligence briefing, has become a major consumer of intelligence, spending 45 minutes or more every day with his briefers, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
“We have spent far more hours in the Oval Office than we anticipated,” Coats said. “The president is a voracious consumer of information and asking questions and asking us to provide intelligence.”
That makes Trump’s lack of discretion an additional hazard to U.S. allies’ intelligence services, said Joshua Rovner, chair of international politics and national security at Southern Methodist University’s Tower Center for Political Studies.
Rovner said initial concerns about the administration’s relationship with the intelligence community had dissipated after Coats and others testified that Trump was receiving extensive briefings. Most thought that meant the president was taking advantage of the intelligence community to bring himself up to speed on issues.
“This story, however, puts any progress at risk,” Rovner said. “Intelligence leaders are not likely to trust the administration if they believe it willy-nilly gives sensitive material to a U.S. adversary.”
“On the flip side,” he said, “the administration will probably suspect the intelligence community of leaking to what it sees as a hostile media.”
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, defended the president’s decision to share intelligence about Islamic State terrorists. He criticized the intelligence community for leaking information about the president’s communications with the Russians.
“I think national security is put at risk by this leak and by leaks like this,” McMaster said. “And there are a number of instances where this has occurred and I think it’s important to investigate these sort of things.”
McMaster, who said he had been in the room during the meeting, said nothing inappropriate had been shared with the Russians and allies should have no concerns whatsoever. He did acknowledge, however, that Trump had decided to reveal the information to the Russians without discussing it with other U.S. officials.
European allies should be concerned if the president of the United States is sharing highly classified information, said Timothy Phillips, a national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He also cautioned that the leaks were very curious, as so much privileged information appeared to repeatedly be making it into the hands of reporters.
“Is this part of an information operation campaign where they’re deliberately leaking?” he asked. “Is the media being used? I don’t know.” But he said the number of people who would have been in the Oval Office for the meeting would be small, so the sources of the leaks should be easy to isolate.
“There are not a whole lot of people there,” he said.
This was not the first time Trump’s actions prompted questions about White House credibility. The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board has criticized Trump, saying he damaged his credibility and undermined his presidency with what turned out to be an unfounded tweet accusing then-President Barack Obama of having “wiretapped” him.
“We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods,” the editorial board wrote.
The assaults on Trump’s credibility have only continued. Last week, White House staffers gave a version of the president’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey that Trump himself contradicted two days later in an interview with NBC News.
On Tuesday, Trump made it clear that, whatever McMaster may have told reporters, he clearly had given the visiting Russians “facts.” In a tweet, Trump called that his “right.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was “absolutely” seeing a shift happening among Republicans. Some Republicans are indicating their concerns to Democrats that they’re moving toward allowing a special prosecutor to look at the Russia investigation.
“Every one of these debacles is another hole in the dike,” Blumenthal said. “Another piece of the dike imploding. And eventually it has to crumble as we become nearer to a constitutional crisis where the need for action is undeniable.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, a loyal Missouri Republican who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee and on the Senate GOP leadership team, broke with the White House and issued a sharply critical assessment of the president’s reported act of sharing intelligence with Russian officials.
“One of the important lessons of being on the intel committee, you just have to be very thoughtful about what you talk about because any fact you know might lead to either the source of that or the method you got it from,” Blunt said. “It’s a lesson that everyone that handles intel at some point, I think, has to learn how to deal with all the information you have and remember where you got it.”
Even the strategic and tight-lipped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., raised concerns about what is happening at the White House.
“I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House,” McConnell said.
Among Democrats in Congress on Tuesday, the answer to the question of whether U.S. allies can trust the Trump administration was simple.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has a respected background in national security and foreign policy, didn’t think so: “Why would they share anything with us if they don’t think we can keep it safe?”
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the question had to be answered, soon.
“These relationships are built on trust,” he said. “We don’t know all the facts at this point, but we need to know if the trust is still there.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.