WASHINGTON – The crisis-battered White House battled to avert what one top GOP senator warns is a “downward spiral” on Tuesday, following reports that President Donald Trump divulged highly classified information to two top Russian visitors to the Oval Office.
Rising concern and mystification among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill about the chaos raging at the White House added to the administration’s struggle to explain the President’s actions in his meeting last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.
“We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia, our fight is against ISIS,” Trump said Tuesday, after making a statement alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their bilateral meeting.
Earlier Tuesday, the White House insisted that Trump did not risk national security by sharing classified information with top Russian officials and revealed the President did not even know the source of the intelligence he divulged.
According to US and diplomatic officials, Israeli intelligence was a source for some of the information about ISIS bomb-making capabilities that the President discussed with Russian diplomats.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, would not comment on the intelligence but expressed confidence in the US-Israel relationship.
“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” he said.
The White House would not comment on Israel being the source, but spokesman Sean Spicer said he was “obviously pleased” with Dermer’s comments.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster said that Trump’s behavior at the Oval Office meeting last week was “wholly appropriate” after The Washington Post first reported that the President revealed top secret information that had been passed to the United States by a foreign intelligence service.
But the national security adviser did not specifically deny key aspects of the story, which said the President had shared details of an ISIS plot to bomb civilian airlines in a way that could allow Russia to trace the source of the intelligence.
McMaster also said Tuesday that Trump himself wasn’t fully aware of important context surrounding the intelligence he disclosed to Russian officials, implying Trump didn’t realize the gravity of his disclosure.
As the intrigue over the intelligence dimensions of the latest White House controversy deepened, it has emerged that administration officials contacted the intelligence community following last week’s meeting between Trump and top Russian officials in the Oval Office, to check on the classification level of items he discussed.
The information was brought up by Trump spontaneously, the source said. When the President brought up the classified information, he did it in the context of trying to push the Russians to be helpful with bad actors like Assad in Syria, the official explained.
A separate administration source explained that after the meeting between Trump and the Russians, the President’s advisers checked on the specific classification level of information discussed in the Oval office meeting.
But the administration official insisted that no one involved in the meeting expressed alarm regarding the President’s comments, which reportedly focused on an ISIS plot to bring down civilian airliners.
The intelligence behind the US ban on laptops and other electronics is considered so highly classified that CNN, at the request of US government officials, withheld key details from a previous story on the travel restrictions.
The concern, US officials told CNN, was that publishing certain information, including a city where some of the intelligence was detected, could tip off adversaries about the sources and methods used to gather the intelligence.
There is some disagreement, according to one of the sources, as to how far the President went. The intelligence relates to what is known as a special access program, or SAP, which covers some of the most classified information and is protected with unique access and security protocols.
According to The Washington Post, Trump described details to Lavrov and Kislyak about how ISIS hopes to use laptop computers as bombs on planes.
“I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” one official with knowledge of the meeting described Trump as saying, according to the Post, before the President reportedly relayed specific intelligence.
Details about how the White House responded to the meeting with the Russians emerged as Washington tried to digest the scale of the crisis now gripping the White House over last week’s meeting.
Lawmakers, including prominent Republicans, are expressing concern about the President’s actions and demanding more details from the White House, as broader debate rages over what the episode means for future US intelligence cooperation with foreign powers, and whether efforts to thwart the ISIS plot may have been complicated in some way.