WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his “absolute right” to share information with Russian officials at a White House meeting last week, pushing back against media accounts that he disclosed highly classified intelligence related to Islamic State.
In early morning Twitter comments, Trump said he wanted to pass on “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” as he met in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow's U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and urge Russia to "greatly step up up their fight" against Islamic State and terrorists.
What media reported Monday
Several U.S. news organizations reported that Trump disclosed the information considered highly classified during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Trump appeared to be boasting about inside knowledge of a looming threat to aviation, according to the Washington Post.
The New York Times reported that the information, which was deemed to be especially sensitive, had not even been shared widely within the U.S. government or shared with other allies.
The two newspapers, and others, further said the information could jeopardize a critical source of intelligence about Islamic State and the manner in which it was collected.
A U.S. president has the power to declassify nearly any information, so what Trump did does not appear to be illegal. But intelligence officials, quoted by the newspapers, expressed concern that the information, provided by a U.S. partner government, could harm crucial relationships.
As he defended his disclosure Tuesday, Trump also said that from the beginning of his administration in January he has been pressuring the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others in the U.S. government "to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community." After-the-fact published reports of Trump's interactions with foreign leaders have at times angered him.
McMaster denies accuracy of media reports
U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other members of Trump's administration denied the accuracy of the reports.
As the controversy over Trump's remarks unfolded, the Senate majority leader, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, gently chided the president.
"We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so we can focus on our agenda," McConnell told Bloomberg Television.
Other lawmakers voiced concerns about Trump's revelations to the Russians.
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told VOA that Trump "has the ability to disclose classified information. That doesn’t make it right. And where it’s sensitive and could put sensitive relationships and sources at risk, it’s just as dangerous whether it’s legal or not."
Another Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, said, "There are a whole host of issues here, both legal and strategic — trusted allies, trust of our intelligence community. And it seems we have one more action by this president that continues to show a pattern of, frankly, disrespecting and disregarding the leadership of the intelligence community.”
Republican Senator John McCain, a key foreign affairs expert, said Trump's disclosure risked the cooperation of allies in future intelligence-gathering operations. "It’s a serious concern and we have to know who it is he [Trump] may have unmasked [the intelligence source] by giving that information" to the Russian officials, McCain said.
Tillerson backs up McMasters
Late Monday, McMaster told reporters at the White House that the original story, first reported by the Post, “is false. At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operation that was not already publicly known.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said he also attended the May 10 meeting with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador, backed up McMaster's characterization of the conversation, adding in a statement that "a broad range of subjects were discussed, among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism."
Neither official denied that classified information was disclosed.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Tuesday denied that Trump revealed any classified information at last week's meeting, calling the reports "fake."
The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency declined immediate comment when contacted by VOA.
Since the early days of the Trump administration, the president’s apparent willingness to work with Russia had some U.S. allies ill at ease.
"It's a key concern," a Western diplomatic official who spoke on condition of anonymity told VOA at the time. "Russia has been a very disruptive player."
But some former intelligence officials think the repercussions from the Oval Office meeting will be minimal, if any.
“No damage - no sources or methods revealed,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank.
Pregent, who worked with McMaster in Iraq, said it is unlikely the national security adviser would have allowed the president to cross any lines.
Instead, Pregent sees an opportunity to have turned the Russian visit to the White House to Washington’s advantage.
“Sharing this info with the Russians calls them on their inaction against ISIS in Syria,” he said.
The story broke as the White House remains embroiled in controversy over Trump's firing last week of FBI Director James Comey. That occurred one day prior to the Oval Office meeting with the Russians.
The FBI is investigating alleged links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
In a joint statement, the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, Elijah Cummings and John Conyers, called for the release of any audio recordings of Trump’s meeting last week with the Russians.
National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Capitol Hill correspondents and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.