By Miriam Raftery
May 16, 2017 (Washington D.C.) – After the Washington Post reported yesterday that President Donald Trump leaked classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s Ambassador Sergey Kisylyak, multiple major media outlets now report that they have independently confirmation this through their own sources, including the New York Times, Politico, Buzzfeed and CNN.
Leaders in both parties and intelligence sources have voiced alarm that the disclosure could put lives at risk and eliminate valuable sources of intelligence to the U.S. on the Islamic state, though the Trump team and the Russians have denied media versions of the meeting.
Trump himself seems to have admitted leaking classified information that had anyone else done so, would be grounds for firing or even charges of treason. Today Trump tweeted that he has an “absolute right” to share sensitive intelligence, adding that he wants “Russia to greatly step up their fight against terrorism.”
No American media was allowed at the meeting itself, though in a break with protocol, Russian media was present.
According to the Washington Post, Trump went off script and told the Russians about top secret information provided by a U.S. ally that did not give permission for it to be shared. Specifically, the information warned of a plot by the Islamic State, or ISIS, to blow up airplanes with laptop computers.
Officials reportedly told the New York Times that Trump even revealed the city in Islamic State territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat. That raises concerns that ISIS or even the Russians, who are allies of Bashar Assad in Syria, could seek to disrupt that flow of information or harm the source.
The Washington Post withheld crucial details at the request of the intelligence community, showing more concern for the safety of sources behind enemy lines than the President did.
Trump met with the top Russian officials just one day after firing FBI President James Comey, who was slated to testify before the Senate Intelligence committee days later about the FBI investigation into Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential election and Trump team ties to Russia.
Trump ‘s administration first claimed the firing was due to the Clinton emails, but Trump himself admitted on NBC TV to host Lester Holt that the firing was due to “this Russian thing,” prompting accusations that the President engaged in obstruction of justice much like Richard Nixon did when he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Lt. General H.R. McMaster called the premise behind the Post story “false” and claimed it was “wholly appropriate” for Trump to share the information” and further claimed Trump “wasn’t even aware of where this information came from,” the New York Times reports. Trump has insisted that his daily intelligence briefings be limited to just one page.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement claiming Trump had not discussed “sources, methods or military operations” thought he Post story never said that he did.
Buzzfeed reports, “Two US officials who were briefed on Trump’s disclosures last week confirmed to Buzzfeed News the veracity of the Washington Post report, with one noting that “it’s far worse than what has already been reported.” The official was referring to the extent of the classified intelligence information Trump disclosed to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.
While none of the major media outlets revealed their sources on the President’s actions in the meeting, it is not unusual for media to protect high-level sources who must maintain anonymity to hold their positions. Deep Throat, the secret informant who helped Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein with their investigative report that helped bring down Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, was an anonymous source. After his death, his identity was revealed as Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI.
If reports of Trump divulging classified information to Russia are true, his actions are likely not illegal, since a President can choose to share classified information. But doing so in this case was reckless and foolhardy, critics in both parties and the intelligence community contend.
One official told the Washington Post that Trump openly boasted to the Russians about the classified information he reportedly shared, stating, “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day” just before sharing the information with the Russian officials.
Kislyak, one of the Russians Trump shared secret intelligence with, was instrumental in compromising Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign over his misleading statements about his meetings with Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also had to recuse himself from the FBI Russia investigation after it was revealed that he lied during his confirmation hearing about having any contacts with Russian officials, when in fact he had met with and spoken with Kislyak.
Former intelligence officials and members of key Senate committees handling intelligence matters have voiced shock and dismay at Trump’s reported loose lips.
Wayne White was a senior intelligence official at the State Department during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration. He told Politico, “There are red lines even presidents are not supposed to be crossing. He has to be protecting his own assets. It is really frightening for our people, especially the people managed the relationship in getting the information.”
Eliot Cohen, another ex-Bush State Department official, said of the action, “If accidental, it would be a firing offense for anyone else. If deliberate, it would be treason.”
Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Service committed, stated, “Reports that this information was provided by a U.S. ally shared without its knowledge sends a troubling signal to America’s allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future,” CNN reports.
Further, he slammed Trump, “Regrettably, the time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia’s aggressive behavior, including its interference in American and European elections, its illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, its other destabilizing activities across Europe, and the slaughter of innocent civilians and targeting of hospitals in Syria.”
Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also a Republican, has said the White House is in a “downward spiral” and urged stay to “figure out a way to come to grips” with the latest actions by the President.
Republican leaders hip I the House and Senate responded more tepidly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell merely observed, “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement saying he wants more information. Ryan spokesman Doug Andrew did acknowledge that “protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” Buzzfeed reports.
Prominent Democrats are also speaking out to condemn the sharing of classified information with Russian leaders.
“I think a line was crossed and we need to know now, in Congress, just exactly what was told and what does this mean for the future of information sharing with allies and for the troops who are serving abroad,” Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California, a House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC.
Leon Panetta, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, has said Trump should be more responsible with sensitive information, CNN reports. Panetta observed that Trump “is President of the United States. He is not a reality TV Star.”
Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opined, “I don’t know when it will be enough for Republicans to understand that we need to get to the bottom of the connection between the President of the United States and the Russian Government.”