WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump confirmed on Tuesday that he had divulged highly classified information to two top Russian visitors to the White House last week, but said he had the right to do so.
The admission prompted a call from senior Republican leaders to take immediate steps to end the chaos that characterised the Trump White House.
“As president I wanted to share with Russia which I have the absolute right to do,” Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday, a day after the New York Times and Washington Post reported that he had shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador to the US in a White House meeting last week.
Mr Trump said he shared the information at “an openly scheduled W.H. meeting” and these were “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety”. He said he decided to do so for “humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS [the militant Islamic State group or IS] and terrorism”.
The US media reported that Mr Trump did not directly reveal the source of the information, but gave enough information for Russia to figure out the highly sensitive source. This, the reports warned, had compromised US intelligence operatives who gathered the information about how IS planned to use laptops as bombs to blow up airlines.
As some reports warned that the president’s mistake could also endanger the lives of these intelligence operatives, a senior Republican lawmaker urged the White House to get its act together.
Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the White House was “in a downward spiral right now” and staff “have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening”.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the chaos at the White House could hurt the Republican plans for exploiting congressional majorities for doing important legislation.
“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House,” McConnell said on Bloomberg Television. “We could focus on our agenda, which is the regulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, also Republican, did not heed to calls to defend the president and demanded more information to do so.
Mr Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told reporters at the White House that the president did not know where the information he shared with Russian officials had originated.
“The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either,” he said.
“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.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement, acknowledging that Mr Trump had in fact discussed specific threats in the Oval Office meeting.
“During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism,” Mr Tillerson said.
“During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
On Monday evening, when the Washington Post broke the story, senior White House aides rejected it as incorrect. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” said Mr McMaster. “This story is false,” added Dina Powell, his deputy.
But Mr Trump embarrassed his own team when he tweeted that he had shared that piece of information with the Russians because as president he had the right to do so.
And instead of addressing the furore the disclosure caused, the president asked his aides to figure out who leaked the information to the media. “I have been asking [sacked FBI] director [James] Comey and others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the leakers in the intelligence community,” he tweeted.
Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2017