WASHINGTON – One day after reports he leaked "highly classified information" to top Russian officials, President Trump defended his right to share "facts" about terrorism and airline safety as part of a joint counter-terrorism effort to fight the Islamic State.
"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," Trump said in a pair of tweets. "Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Trump discussed classified information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak provided to the U.S. by another country in a way they could have used to identify secret sources and methods. The information dealt with plans by the Islamic State to use laptop computers as weapons, and was so sensitive it had been withheld from allies – and under close hold within the U.S. government as well.
Notably, neither Trump nor his advisers have explicitly denied the president shared classified intelligence.
American presidents have the power to unilaterally disclose any material – even the most secret intelligence – without going through any kind of formal process or fear of being prosecuted. While Trump is correct to say he has an "absolute right" to share any information he wants, experts say that strategy can be risky – especially because allies could lose their trust in the U.S. ability to keep secrets and might stop sharing valuable intelligence with their American counterparts.
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
Trump's explanation appeared to differed in tone from ones offered by aides late Monday. "The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation," said national security adviser H.R. McMaster. "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."
Lawmakers from both parties demanded a full accounting of the conversation with the Russian diplomats that some feared could lead to exposure of confidential informants helping U.S. intelligence officials counter the Islamic State.
“If the report is true, it is very disturbing," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "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."
The latest incident comes a week after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Critics accused him of seeking to short-circuit an investigation into whether associates of the Trump campaign colluded with Russians who sought to influence last year's election.
All this also comes as Trump prepares for his first foreign trip. He leaves Friday for the Middle East and Europe.