The White House on Monday threw cold water on a report that US President Donald Trump revealed classified information to Russian officials last week, saying no specific intelligence “sources or methods” were discussed.
The Washington Post said Trump had given Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s envoy to the US Sergey Kislyak details about a specific terror threat posed by the Islamic State terror group during Oval Office talks last week.
The bombshell report comes as Moscow’s alleged interference in last year’s US presidential election is back in the spotlight following Trump’s shock firing of FBI chief James Comey, whose agency was investigating Russia’s possible collusion with aides to the Republican billionaire.
“The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation,” National Security Advisor HR McMaster, who participated in the meeting, told reporters.
“At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not discuss any military operations that were not already publicly known,” he added.
“There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
The information Trump disclosed, according to the Washington Post, was provided by an unnamed US partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement so secret, its details are unknown to some within the government. The officials said Trump’s revelations endangered the cooperation with the US ally who is reported to have access to the workings of the Islamic State.
“If that partner learned we’d given this to Russia without their knowledge or asking first, that is a blow to that relationship,” a US official told the Washington Post.
Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies,” another official said.
The New York Times, which later picked up the story, said the ally had previously shared information with the US, only to see it leaked, and had warned US officials that it may cut off access to such information if it is shared too widely.
In January, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in Israel reported that US intelligence officials warned their Israeli counterparts that Trump’s ties to Russia could pose a security threat, and described a meeting between US and Israeli intelligence officials in which the Americans indicated to Israel they should be cautious in sharing information with Trump’s White House. The paper reported that the Americans assessed that Russia had some kind of leverage over Trump, but did not go into details.
In the meeting on May 10, Trump reportedly told Lavrov: “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” according to an official with knowledge of the exchange, before going into the details obtained through the capabilities of the key US ally.
While the president did not reveal to the Russians how the information was gathered, he did disclose specific elements of an unfolding plot and its threats and — most alarmingly to US officials — the city in IS territory where the information was picked up by the intelligence partner.
The Post reported that “Trump went off script and began describing details about an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.”
The US Department of Homeland Security has said it is mulling the expansion of a ban on laptop computers in passenger cabins on jets originating in Europe. A US ban is already in place for several countries in the Middle East and North Africa
The paper said it was withholding further information, including the name of the city, at the behest of US officials who said revealing them could endanger further intel cooperation. The location, according to the report, could help Russia identify said US ally and its espionage capabilities which may extend to gathering intel on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would possibly be interested in disrupting such intel gathering.
“Everyone knows this stream is very sensitive, and the idea of sharing it at this level of granularity with the Russians is troubling,” said one US counterterrorism official who works closely with the Trump administration.
Trump’s disclosures caused senior White House officials to scramble to contain the damage, placing calls to both the CIA and the National Security Agency, according to the report.
The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment Monday evening.
It’s unlikely that Trump has broken any law. As president, Trump has broad authority to declassify government secrets.
Reactions from Washington were quick to come in.
“We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. “The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”
Senior Republican Senator John McCain told CNN that “if it’s true, it’s obviously disturbing.” But he cautioned: “Let’s wait and see what this was all about first.”
Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter: “If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community. Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Monday evening that the Trump White House “has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order.”
He said he would have more to say when he knows more about the news report.
“The shame of it is there’s a really good national security team in place and there are good, productive things that are under way through them and through others,” Corker said. “But the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline — it’s creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.”
The story prompted Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to tweet: “Protip: Don’t give the Russians classified information. #Classified101.”