U.S. President Donald Trump defended his conduct after sharing highly sensitive intelligence in a recent meeting with Russian officials, saying it was his "absolute right" to discuss certain details in the context of combatting terrorism.
Mr. Trump revealed classified information obtained from a U.S. ally on a terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, potentially jeopardizing the source of the intelligence, according to The Washington Post.
The ally in question is Israel, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, a country that Mr. Trump is scheduled to visit next week as part of his first trip abroad as President.
The revelations set off a new firestorm even as the administration continued to struggle with criticism of last week's dismissal of James Comey, the director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Trump abruptly fired Mr. Comey in the midst of a continuing investigation into possible collusion between the President's advisers and Russia.
Late Tuesday afternoon, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey in February to drop a federal investigation into Mr. Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The White House denied the account of the conversation.
In the span of a single week, Mr. Trump has been engulfed by two political crises. Both are of Mr. Trump's own making and raise uncomfortable questions about whether the President has a firm grasp on the far-reaching consequences of his actions. While the President has the authority to reveal secrets, his apparent choice to do so in a meeting with representatives of a U.S. adversary left experts stunned.
The deepening sense of turmoil emanating from the White House is alarming U.S. allies abroad and prompting public expressions of concern from Republican lawmakers. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and a stalwart supporter of Mr. Trump, said in a television interview Tuesday that he "would like a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things."
Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, went further, saying in a statement that it would be "very troubling" if the President had shared classified information with Russia and noting that such a disclosure could "discourage our allies from sharing future information vital to our security." On Tuesday evening, Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was expected to brief lawmakers.
The White House sought to contain the damage on Tuesday. H.R. McMaster, the current national security adviser, told reporters that it was "wholly appropriate" for Mr. Trump "to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people."
Mr. McMaster said the information was conveyed to Russia's foreign minister during a discussion of the threat posed by Islamic State, and in particular the danger to commercial airliners. Mr. Trump decided to share the details "in the context of the conversation," said Mr. McMaster, suggesting that it was a spontaneous move by the President and not a step he previously discussed with his advisers.
Several media reports indicated that the information shared by Mr. Trump with Russia was classified as top secret and its dissemination even more tightly limited due to its sensitivity – indeed, it was not shared with Britain or Canada, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Intelligence sharing is always difficult and fraught, said Juliette Kayyem, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, and the recent meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian officials will complicate future co-operation. "The idea that this is Kumbaya, even between Britain and the U.S., or Canada and the U.S., is incorrect," said Ms. Kayyem. "It's a muscle that has to be nurtured."
As president, Mr. Trump occupies a unique position with respect to classified information. If other government officials reveal secrets, the consequences could range from losing their job to getting indicted. But Mr. Trump, as commander-in-chief, sits atop the system of classified information.
When Mr. Trump talks openly about classified information, the effect is to "instantaneously declassify it," said David Pozen, a law professor at Columbia University and an expert on constitutional law. If the President comes to a considered judgment that something should be revealed, it is "his call to make, constitutionally."
Prof. Pozen said that it remained unclear whether there was any deliberation or consultation involved before Mr. Trump disclosed information to the Russians, or whether "this was just an improvised gesture" on the part of the President.
On rare occasions, presidents have revealed classified information when they have found it necessary to justify or explain their actions to the public, historian Timothy Naftali of New York University noted in a piece he wrote in January.
In 1969, Richard Nixon appeared to reveal during a press conference that the U.S. had the ability to intercept North Korean radar signals, Prof. Naftali said. And in 1986, Ronald Reagan delivered an address to the nation where he explained his decision to launch air strikes on Libya. The U.S. had solid evidence of Tripoli's involvement in a terrorist plot, Mr. Reagan said, pointing to details indicating that the U.S. was able to read confidential Libyan government messages.
Experts struggled to think of an analogous situation to the current one involving Mr. Trump, where the President shared classified information in private with a country considered to be a U.S. rival. The fact that elements of Mr. Trump's conversation with the Russian Foreign Minister were provided to the media suggests a deep concern on the part of the officials involved in making the episode public.
The leak reflects "a level of almost desperation on the part of whoever provided it to stop this kind of thing from happening again," said Jon Finer, who was the chief of staff to former secretary of state John Kerry. "It's the functional equivalent of writing an SOS message, putting it in a bottle and throwing it over the fence of the White House."
Amid a turbulent start to the Trump administration, the past week stands out for its extraordinary sequence of events, said Mr. Finer. It feels like "things are starting to veer out of control in ways that are disturbing not just to people who came to the Trump presidency with a lot of suspicion and concern, but also to those who might have been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt."