The White House on Monday evening pushed back sharply on reports that President Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian officials during a meeting last week.
Speaking to the press outside the White House Monday evening, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said: “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false.”
“The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so.”
“Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. I was in the room — it didn’t happen,” he said.
In statements, two other senior Trump officials sought to characterize the disclosures as benign and pertaining only to “common threats.”
“The nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
Deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, who also attended the meeting, called The Washington Post report “false” in a statement of her own.
According to the Post, Trump provided “code-word information” to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, using a government term that refers to the highest level of classification. The intelligence had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement.
But the White House denial — that Trump did not explicitly discuss the sources and methods behind the intelligence — did not directly address or nullify the Post’s reporting.
According to the Post, the information Trump revealed included details that Russia could use to reverse-engineer the sources or methods used to gather the intelligence, officials told the paper.
Among those details was the name of the city in ISIS territory where the U.S. partner detected the threat, seen as a particularly sensitive disclosure that could allow Russia to identify the intelligence capability involved.
That capability is highly valuable. It could be used to provide intelligence on Russia’s involvement in Syria, officials said, and the Kremlin would have an intense interest in identifying and disrupting it.
According to the Post, White House officials immediately realized the seriousness of the president’s disclosures and sought to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were caught by surprise by the shocking revelation.
But the news quickly drew criticism — even from Republicans.
The senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the White House was in “a downward spiral.”
“To compromise a source is something you just don’t do,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters.
But others in the GOP shrugged off the report, defending the president’s discretion to declassify government secrets.
“He has the ability to declassify anything at any time without any process. So it’s no longer classified the minute he utters it,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to Talking Points Memo.
Sen.John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime Russia hawk, also gave some cover to the president, noting that while such a disclosure would be “disturbing,” “the president does have the right to do that.”
The president has the broad authority to declassify information, making it unlikely that Trump’s disclosures broke any laws.
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill declined to comment, many of them arguing that they hadn’t seen the report.
Democrats widely met the news with shock and outrage.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “Congress must be given a full briefing on the extent of the damage President Trump has done.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed Pelosi, saying, “Revealing classified information at this level is extremely dangerous and puts at risk the lives of Americans and those who gather intelligence for our country.
“The President owes the intelligence community, the American people, and Congress a full explanation.”
“This bombshell report is astonishing & appalling — betraying our allies, endangering safety of sources, & sabotaging our war against ISIS,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Appearing on CNN, Blumenthal added that Republicans and Democrat should come together in favor of an independent investigation “so that we can follow the facts wherever they lead.”
“Make no mistake, this kind of serious and grave threat requires a national response, putting country above politics.”
The Post report appears to be particularly damaging, given Trump’s longstanding criticism of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s carelessness with classified information. Clinton used a private email server while secretary of State, through which classified information was sent.
Further inflaming controversy, the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak occurred the day after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. The timing of the dismissal — and Trump’s own explanations — led to allegations that he was attempting to stifle the bureau’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
The report also comes as Trump has continued to struggle to earn the trust of his own intelligence community, reportedly discomfited by his longstanding refusal to accept the assessment of career analysts that Russia tried to interfere in the election.
“If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Monday. “Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”