President Donald Trump revealed highly classified intelligence information to Russian officials during a meeting at the White House last week, The Washington Post reported Monday. The New York Times later said it had confirmed the report.
The intelligence information came from a country that was a partner with the United States on anti-terrorist efforts, and it hadn’t been shared with allies because of how sensitive it is, the papers reported.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told reporters in a brief statement: “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false.”
“At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed,” said McMaster, who didn’t take questions. “I was in the room, and it didn’t happen.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster’s deputy for strategy, Dina Powell, also said in statements that Trump didn’t disclose sources or methods of gathering intelligence — denying an assertion that neither newspaper reported. The Post and The Times reported only that Trump had disclosed information that could lead to the exposure of such assets.
McMaster “hasn’t said anything that really contradicts the story,” John McLaughlin, who was acting director of central intelligence during the administration of former President George W. Bush. told NBC News on Monday night. “He just says sources and methods weren’t revealed.”
While “you can leave out sources and methods, and depending on how you pass information, you can tip another intelligence service to the source or method by virtue of revealing that you know something that could only be known by a limited circle of people,” McLaughlin said.
Trump’s decision to share the intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak also threatens to harm cooperation between the United States and the partner country, officials told The Post.
But a source with direct knowledge of the conversation argued that the information was much ado about nothing, telling NBC News that it had to do with previously reported concerns that ISIS could use laptop computers on flights as weapons.
NBC News reported in March that the United States had banned travelers from carrying any electronic devices larger than smartphones on flights arriving in the country from 10 overseas airports, most of them in the Middle East.
The report is the latest in a series documenting problematic connections between Trump and Russia. Last week, he abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, later telling NBC News’ Lester Holt that the Russia probe factored into his decision.
The Post reported that Trump revealed details about an ISIS threat involving a plot to use electronic devices to smuggle explosives onto planes. McMaster confirmed that Trump did discuss “threats to civil aviation.”
A former intelligence official told NBC News that the discussion could have serious consequences for U.S. efforts to thwart ISIS. A key espionage partner may stop sharing information with the United States, allies could become even more hesitant to share intelligence, and government officials might stop sharing information with the president for fear that he won’t protect it, the former official said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee wasn’t briefed on the matter, said an aide to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, but it remained unclear whether the top four leaders of the House and the Senate were briefed on it.
Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said: “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”
Some Republicans senators expressed caution, saying they hadn’t read the story yet. But Bob Corker of Tennessee had harsh words for the administration.
“Obviously, they’re in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” Corker told reporters.
“You know, the shame of it is there’s a really good national security team in place and there are good productive things that are under way through them and through others, but the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment — it creates a worrisome environment.”
Democrats immediately pounced on the report, saying that it if the report is true, it is “dangerous” and “reckless.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California called for a full briefing for all House members on the issue.
“Even if President Trump unwittingly blew a highly classified code-word source to the Russians, that would be dangerous enough,” she said in a statement, using a phrase meant to signify the most closely held secret information.
“If the president outed a highly classified code-word source intentionally, that would be even more dangerous,” she said.