(Bloomberg) -- White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster sought for the second day to contain the damage from a report that President Donald Trump revealed sensitive and highly classified intelligence to two senior Russian officials, saying Trump’s disclosure was “wholly appropriate.”
McMaster on Tuesday called the premise of a Washington Post report on last week’s Oval Office conversation with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador “false,” but he didn’t dispute the central facts. He said that the president’s spontaneous disclosure to the Russian officials was appropriate for a discussion about Islamic State threats and for what the administration was trying to achieve.
Asked whether there was any formal discussion or consultation with intelligence agencies about revealing the information in advance of the meeting, McMaster said the president “made the decision in the context of the conversation.”
He echoed Trump in blaming leakers within the government for any breach of security.
“The real issue, and I think what I’d like to see really debated more, is that our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality,” McMaster, who was present at last week’s meeting, told reporters at a briefing.
McMaster, who also was dispatched to respond to the Post story after it was published Monday evening, said Trump didn’t know the sources of the information or the methods by which it was collected, so he couldn’t have revealed them.
The Post story, however, didn’t allege that Trump revealed sources or methods, nor did it say he disclosed military operations. According to the Post, the intelligence, involving information about an Islamic State plot to use laptop computers as possible weapons aboard commercial aircraft, had been provided by a U.S. ally with access to the inner workings of the terrorist group.
What Trump revealed were elements of a specific plot and the city in Islamic State’s territory where the threat was detected, information that could be enough for the Russians to draw a fuller picture, according to one intelligence official cited by the Post, and possibly which intelligence agency was involved.
McMaster refused to say whether the information discussed was classified or whether it might jeopardize sharing by the nation that provided it.
The New York Times, citing unidentified current and former U.S. officials, reported Tuesday that Israel provided the intelligence Trump cited in the meeting. Israel’s foreign minister, Emanuel Nachshon, declined to comment, but Ron Dermer, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a statement that “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump."
The controversy erupted just days before Trump leaves for his first overseas trip as president, one that will start in the heart of the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and Israel, two crucial U.S. allies on the front lines of the battle against Islamic State. It also comes as he’s fending off questions about his firing of FBI Director James Comey amid an investigation of possible collusion by Trump associates in Russian interference with last year’s U.S. election.
The revelation has added impact for Trump because during his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton last year, he repeatedly assailed her “careless” use of a private email system while she was secretary of state, a practice he argued could have exposed classified information. He claimed it made her unfit for the presidency. Surrogates at his campaign rallies led chants of “Lock her up!”
Trump himself on Tuesday claimed an “absolute right” to share information about terrorism with Russian officials.
“As President 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 airline flight safety,” Trump said in a series of tweets on Tuesday. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Some lawmakers in both parties expressed alarm over the Post report, parts of which have been confirmed by the New York Times, and demanded a fuller accounting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who seldom comments publicly on Trump’s controversies, said during in an interview with Bloomberg News on Tuesday that “we could do with a little less drama from the White House.”
“I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we’re trying to accomplish and less time on other things,” McConnell said.
Other leading Republicans were more direct.
“The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order,” Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. “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.”
Frustration in Congress
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona called the Post report “deeply disturbing.”
“The time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia’s aggressive behavior, including its interference in American and European elections,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona expressed frustration with the administration’s shifting approaches to dealing with controversies, including the firing of Comey and the conversation with the Russians.
“We’ve only heard a couple of iterations from the White House so far,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “But we’ll wait for another hour or so I guess.”
Several lawmakers said they wanted more information. Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said, “The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida told reporters that he hopes lawmakers hear from the White House on Tuesday so they can “get some clarity out of this.”
Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo was previously scheduled to meet with the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday evening, according to two committee aides. The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, told reporters the panel hopes to question one of the officials who was in the meeting to answer questions about what was said, but he and other lawmakers hadn’t heard yet from the White House.
“I hopefully can cover this in a telephone conversation versus a transcript, but I’ll go that route if I need to,” Burr said.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York went to the floor of the Senate to demand the White House provide a transcript of the Oval Office meeting to the intelligence committee.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel, said sharing information without the permission of a foreign intelligence partner “violates a cardinal rule” of dealing with friendly agencies.
“If it’s accurate, it’s disturbing because it’s divulging information about operations in Syria, which could be exploited not only by the Russians to interrupt intelligence operations that they feel are threatening to them,” Reed said.
The intelligence disclosed was held by the U.S. at one of the highest classification levels, which would typically prevent it from being shared even with allies, according to the Post.
The Kremlin denied Tuesday that Trump shared secrets at his White House meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova ridiculed the Post report Tuesday, writing on Facebook that American newspapers “can be used for other things but there’s no need to read them -- in recent times it’s not only harmful but dangerous.”
“We don’t want anything to do with this nonsense,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “It’s complete nonsense.”
The intelligence involved may be behind the U.S. announcement on March 21 that electronic devices larger than smartphones would be banned from cabins on flights originating from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa. The Department of Homeland Security has been considering expanding the restriction to flights from Europe.