WASHINGTON — National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters today that President Trump did share “wholly appropriate” information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office, but McMaster wouldn’t talk about the classification of the material and added that Trump wasn’t aware of the source of the intelligence.
The Washington Post reported Monday that an unnamed ally was burned by the revelation as Trump shared information “provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government,” a disclosure that “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.”
The New York Times story added that, while the president has broad declassification powers, the ally whose intel was shared “has repeatedly warned American officials that it would cut off access to such sensitive information if it were shared too widely.”
McMaster told reporters in a brief statement outside the White House on Monday evening that “the story that came out tonight as reported is false.”
Today, in the White House briefing room to discuss Trump’s first overseas trip, McMaster said “the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security.”
The general said he wouldn’t “discuss what is and what isn’t classified,” but “in the context of that — that — that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged.”
He added that he was “not concerned at all” that allies would be hesitant to intelligence-share with the United States out of concern for the security of that information. The Associated Press cited a senior European intelligence official telling them that they may stop sharing info with the U.S. if Trump disclosed classified intel to the Russians as it “could be a risk for our sources.”
“That conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation, and I think wholly appropriate what the expectations are of our intelligence partners,” McMaster said, adding he was “not sure what conversations have been held” with foreign partners since the story broke.
The Post reported that Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, apparently recognizing the scope of the damage that could be caused by the disclosure, allegedly hopped on the phone with the CIA and National Security Agency after the Trump meeting. The paper also reported that internal editing and limited distribution of the transcript of the meeting was sought to protect the compromised information.
McMaster said “maybe it’s from an overabundance of precaution, but I’m not sure” why Bossert contacted the security agencies. “I mean, I — I not — I’ve not talked to — to — to Mr. Bossert about — about that, about why he — why he reached out.”
“The president was emphasizing, ‘Hey, we have some common interests here. We have to work together in some critical areas,'” he said of last week’s Oval Office meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. “And we have an area — we have a — an area of cooperation with transnational terrorist organizations, ISIS in particular, an organization that had already taken down a Russian airliner and murdered over 200 people in October of 2015. And so — so — so this was the — the — the context of the conversation in which it was wholly appropriate to share what the threat was as a basis for common action and coordination and cooperation.”
Trump did not reveal the specific source or the methods, the Post reported, but revealed the specific city in ISIS territory involved in the plot and details that would make the source identifiable to Russian spy services. The paper said it withheld the name of the city at the request of U.S. intelligence services.
McMaster said the name of the city “was nothing that you would not know from open source reporting in terms of a source of concern, and it had all to do with operations that are already ongoing, had been made public for months.”
“I will tell you that it was our impression, of all of us, that were in the meeting — I’ve mentioned already — that what was shared was wholly appropriate, given the purpose of that conversation and the purpose of what the president was trying to achieve through that meeting,” he added.
He said it was “incumbent on all of us to bring in the people with the right authorities and the right mandate to take a look at how this leak occurred and how other breaches may have occurred as well.”
“I should just make maybe the statement here that the president wasn’t even aware, you know, where this information came from,” McMaster noted before leaving the briefing room. “He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”
Trump tweeted this morning, “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. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
During remarks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today, Trump noted he had “a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia.”
On the Senate floor this morning, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded the transcript of the Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak be turned over to the congressional intelligence committees.
“If accurate, such a disclosure could damage our interests in the Middle East,” Schumer said. “We do not collaborate with Russia in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East for the simple fact that we have diverging interests. Russia, for example, has worked with Iran to prop up the brutal Assad regime. Sharing vital intelligence with Russian officials could allow the Russians to pursue or even possibly eliminate the source or figure out how the ally conducts operations, including any against Russia or Russia’s allies in the region.”