Donald Trump defends 'absolute right' to share information with Russia, amid row over classified intelligence
Donald Trump has defended sharing classified information with Russian officials, saying he had the "absolute right" to do so for "humanitarian reasons" and because he wants Russia to step up its fight against Isil.
The US president revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during a meeting at the White House last week, it was reported on Monday night.
The US president's actions jeopardised a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terror group, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed US officials.
If confirmed, it would also call into question the ability of the US to protect its intelligence sources.
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....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
The Trump administration immediately rejected the claims as "false", while several Republicans and Democrats expressed alarm that a US president could share high-level intelligence with Russia.
"I was in the room, it didn't happen," H.R. McMaster, Mr Trump's national security adviser, told reporters outside the White House late on Monday.
On Tuesday Mr Trump took to Twitter to defend his actions:
"As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. metting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety," he wrote.
"Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
Mr Trump met Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador in the US in the Oval Office last Wednesday, the day after he fired James Comey, the FBI director who was leading an investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
The move reportedly threw into doubt the future cooperation of the source of the intelligence, which has inside information on Isil.
What was the intelligence?
The information Mr Trump is said to have shared was among the highest classification level.
During the meeting, Mr Trump went off-script and began describing details about an Isil threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft, the officials reportedly said.
Mr Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies”, the official told the newspaper.
“I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the president apparently told his Russian guests.
The source of the intelligence had not given Washington authorisation to share it with Moscow. Officials told the New York Times, the fear was that Russia will be able to identify how the information was collected.
If true, it is unlikely that Mr Trump has broken any law. As president, he has broad authority to declassify government secrets.
Republicans and Democrats react with shock
Dick Durbin, a leading Democratic senator, said Mr Trump's conduct was "dangerous" and "reckless".
"This conduct by the president is not only dangerous, it's reckless. It is reckless for him to disclose to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, sensitive, top secret information," Mr Durbin told reporters outside the Senate.
Classified information cannot be kept from a US president, Mr Durbin added, but he hoped Republicans would make it clear to Mr Trump that his conduct "jeopardises our national security".
Some Republicans expressed shock at the development, with Senator Bob Corker stating that the Trump White House "has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order".
"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," he said.
Mr Corker said the national security team was solid and doing good work, 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".
Trump administration slams reports as 'false'
The Trump administration moved quickly to deny that any intelligence sources were discussed during Wednesday's meeting.
"This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced," said Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy, who attended the meeting.
Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said Mr Trump discussed "the nature of specific threats" during the meeting, "but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations".
Mr McMaster said: “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organisations to include threats to aviation.
“At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”
The controversy engulfed the White House. Reporters spent much of the evening camped out outside of Press Secretary Sean Spicer's office, hoping for answers.
At one point, a reporter spotted a handful of staffers, including Mr Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, walking into 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.
US officials have told Reuters they have long been concerned about disclosing highly classified intelligence to Mr Trump.
One official said last month: "He has no filter; it's in one ear and out the mouth."
One of the officials with knowledge of Mr Trump's meeting with the Russian called the timing of the disclosure "particularly unfortunate," as the president prepares for a White House meeting on Tuesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, an ally in the fight against Islamic State.
The president's first foreign trip also begins later this week and includes a stop in Saudi Arabia, another Islamic State foe, and a May 25 Nato meeting in Brussels attended by other important US allies.