WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week, putting a source of intelligence on the Islamic State at risk, The Washington Post reported.
The disclosure late Monday drew strong condemnation from Democrats and a rare rebuke of Trump from some Republican lawmakers. White House officials denounced the report, saying the president did not disclose intelligence sources or methods to the Russians, though officials did not deny that classified information was disclosed in the May 10 meeting.
“The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation,” said H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser. “At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”
The Post, citing current and former U.S. officials, said Trump shared details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. The ambassador has been a central player in the snowballing controversy surrounding possible co-ordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s election meddling.
The anonymous officials told the Post that the information Trump relayed during the Oval Office meeting had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement. They said it was considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.
The New York Times and BuzzFeed News published similar reports later Monday.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman denied the report. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, on Facebook on Tuesday described the reports as “yet another fake.”
The revelations could further damage Trump’s already fraught relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies. He’s openly questioned the competency of intelligence officials and challenged their high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election to help him win. His criticism has been followed by a steady stream of leaks to the media that have been damaging to Trump and exposed an FBI investigation into his associates’ possible ties to Russia.
The disclosure also risks harming his credibility with U.S. partners around the world ahead of his first overseas trip. The White House was already reeling from its botched handling of Trump’s decision last week to fire James Comey, the FBI director who was overseeing the Russia investigation.
A European security official said sharing sensitive information could dampen the trust between the United States and its intelligence sharing partners. “It wouldn’t likely stop partners from sharing life-saving intelligence with the Americans, but it could impact the trust that has been built, particularly if sharing such information exposes specific intelligence gathering methods,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about such intelligence sharing.
The Royal Court in Jordan said that King Abdullah II was to speak by telephone with Trump later Tuesday. The revelation also prompted cries of hypocrisy. Trump spent the campaign arguing that his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should be locked up for careless handling of classified information.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also disputed the Post report. He said Trump discussed a range of subjects with the Russians, including “common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism.” The nature of specific threats was discussed, he said, but not sources, methods or military operations.
The Post said the intelligence partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russian officials. By doing so, Trump would have jeopardized co-operation from an ally familiar with the inner workings of the Islamic State group, and make other allies – or even U.S. intelligence officials – wary about sharing future top secret details with the president.
Afterward, White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency, the newspaper said.
The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment Monday evening.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats expressed concern about the report.
GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters the Trump White House “has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order.” He described the White House as “on a downward spiral.”
“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.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that if the story is true it would be “deeply disturbing.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York also called the story “disturbing,” adding, “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.”
Reaction from Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees was full-throated.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California called the story “deeply disturbing” and said if it’s true, the disclosure could jeopardize sources of very sensitive intelligence and relationships with key allies.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said: “These reports, if true, are of the gravest possible concern. It could harm our national security by cutting off important sources of intelligence that protect Americans against terrorist acts.”
The controversy engulfed the White House. Reporters spent much of the evening camped out adjacent to Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office, hoping for answers. At one point, an eagle-eyed reporter spotted a handful of staffers, including Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, walking toward the Cabinet Room.
Muffled yelling was heard coming from the area near the room, but after a reporter tweeted about the noise, press staffers quickly turned up their television volume, blasting the sound to drown out everything else.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Vivian Salama, Catherine Lucey, Jill Colvin and Ken Thomas contributed to this report from Washington. Associated Press writer Paisley Dodds contributed from London.