President Trump on Tuesday defended revealing sensitive information to top Russian diplomats, saying in pair of early morning tweets that he has an “absolute right” to do so.
Trump tweeted that he shared the information with the Russians for “humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
He said he wanted to provide Russia with “facts pertaining… to terrorism and airline flight safety,” something that he has “the absolute right to do” as commander in chief.
Trump also vented his frustration that, once again, details from his conversations with foreign dignitaries leaked to the press.
“I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” he tweeted.
Trump’s comments appeared to acknowledge reports Monday that he disclosed highly classified intelligence information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office meeting last week — contradicting carefully worded denials issued by his own White House.
The move was met with condemnation from Democrats, and some Republicans, on Capitol Hill, who said the revelation could jeopardize intelligence sources on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and make allies more reluctant to share intelligence with the U.S.
The White House scrambled to respond late Monday, issuing statements denouncing the story from national security adviser H.R. McMaster, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
All three senior officials said sources and methods were not revealed to the Russians, but did not deny that highly classified information was shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
“The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” McMaster told reporters during an on-camera appearance at the White House.
McMaster said Trump and the Russians “reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation” but said his on the record account should be given more credence to stories based on anonymous sources.
“I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” he said.
The Washington Post first reported the story, writing that Trump shared details about an ISIS terror plot related to laptop computers on airplanes with Lavrov and Kislyak. The highly sensitive, “code-word” intelligence information had been provided by a U.S. anti-terror partner on the condition that it not be shared widely within the administration or with other allies.
BuzzFeed, The New York Times and Reuters all published similar accounts.
The strongest pushback against the story has come from the Russian government. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took to Facebook to denounce the reports as “yet another fake,” according to The Associated Press.
Trump almost certainly did not break the law by disclosing the information; presidents have the power to declassify nearly anything. But that didn’t stop critics from denouncing the move as unwise and dangerous.
Trump’s decision to reveal the information could further fray ties with the intelligence community. The president has publicly questioned the value of the information they have provided him and has refused to acknowledge its unanimous, high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections.
It also deepens a credibility crisis for Trump’s White House staff.
The president again undercut his advisers’ efforts to explain his actions, just one week after he did the same in the aftermath of his firing of James Comey as FBI director.
In an interview last week with NBC News, Trump said he was going to fire Comey all along and that the bureau’s Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to do it.
That account was at odds with the official explanation: that the decision was made on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and that Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe was the primary reason for his dismissal.