Trump Defends Sharing Intel with Russia; Admits Comey was Fired for Investigating Trump Russia Ties

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Trump Defends Sharing Information on ISIS Threat With Russia

    Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster’s news conference

    VIDEO BY THE NEW YORK TIMES

    WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday defended his decision to share sensitive information about an Islamic State threat with Russian officials as the White House once again struggled to reconcile seemingly conflicting accounts of the president’s actions.

    A day after his advisers disputed a news article about the conversation, the president focused instead on justifying what he did and blaming those who disclosed it. In a series of early-morning posts on Twitter, he said he had the “absolute right” to give “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador.

    Asked about the conversation by reporters during a later appearance with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, Mr. Trump again did not deny providing the information, but he instead cast it as an attempt to collaborate with Russia in the war against the Islamic State. “We’re going to have a lot of great success over the coming years, and we want to get as many to fight terrorism as possible,” he said.

    The White House tried to clarify, sending out Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, for the second time in less than 24 hours. General McMaster stood by his Monday night statement, when he said the original Washington Post article about the conversation “as reported” was “false.” And while he would not confirm that Mr. Trump disclosed classified information, General McMaster said the president did not expose the source because he was not told where it came from.

    The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the information about the Islamic State plot came from Israel and was considered so sensitive that American officials had not shared it widely within their own government or among allies. Intelligence officials worried that Mr. Trump, in his meeting with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, provided enough details to effectively expose the source of the information and the manner in which it had been collected.

    “What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged,” General McMaster said.

    General McMaster suggested that Mr. Trump did not violate any confidentiality agreement with the country that provided it, which he did not name. In fact, General McMaster said: “The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”

    Moreover, he said, the president did not give away secrets by discussing the city the information came from, as reported, because it would have been obvious. “It was nothing that you would not know from open source reporting in terms of a source of concern,” General McMaster said. “And it had all to do with operations that are already ongoing, had been made public for months.”

    While General McMaster did not deny that White House officials had reached out to intelligence agencies after Mr. Trump’s revelations to contain any potential damage, he said he could not explain why. “I would say maybe for an overabundance of caution,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

    The general’s briefing came hours after Mr. Trump went on Twitter to defend his actions. “As president,” Mr. Trump wrote, “I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

    The news was first reported by The Post, and many organizations — including BuzzFeedReutersThe Wall Street JournalCNN and The New York Times — quickly published their own accounts of the disclosure.

    Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts on Tuesday morning appeared to undercut the carefully worded statements made by his advisers Monday night to try to dispute the original news reports without taking issue with specific facts in them. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said in a statement that the president “did not discuss sources, methods or military operations” with the Russians.

    But The Post and the other news organizations did not report that he had done so. Instead, they focused on the breach of espionage etiquette, and on the possibility that American allies might be discouraged from sharing intelligence with the United States. They also noted Mr. Trump’s tendency to go off script, at times to the chagrin of his advisers.

    In his briefing on Tuesday, General McMaster suggested that there was no distinction between his quasi denial and the president’s seeming confirmation. “I stand by my statement I made yesterday,” he said. “What I’m saying is really the premise of that article is false.”

    This has become something of a pattern: On Thursday, Mr. Trump told NBC News that the F.B.I.’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia had been a factor in his decision to fire the bureau’s director, James B. Comey, and that the decision was not related to a recommendation from the deputy attorney general. Those comments undercut the accounts provided by his vice president and other advisers.

    In his Tuesday posts on Twitter, Mr. Trump tried to turn attention away from whether he had leaked information to finding those who had disclosed what he had done. “I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” he wrote.

    Administration officials were blindsided by the president’s messages early Tuesday and scrambled to reconcile the gap between them and General McMaster’s comments. Mr. Trump’s aides realized that not having General McMaster answer questions Monday night was going to prolong the story into a new day. But they believed they had been hamstrung by administration lawyers about exactly what could be said.

    The firestorm comes at a challenging time for Mr. Trump’s besieged team. His national security and foreign policy staffs have been spending much of their time planning for his coming eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe — his first overseas trip as president, and an opportunity, they thought, to reset the narrative of his presidency after the lingering controversy of Mr. Comey’s sudden dismissal last week.

    That came to a crashing halt with the revelations on Monday, with staffers being forced, yet again, to go into damage-control mode. At least one member of Mr. Trump’s team assigned to defend him said the president’s shifting stories and impulsiveness were making it hard to recruit talented outsiders needed to staff the still short-handed West Wing.

    The story touched off a flurry of condemnations from Democrats who recalled how Mr. Trump had called for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned for mishandling classified information by using a private email server. Even a number of Republicans expressed varying levels of concern and called for an accounting of what had happened.

    “If the reporting is accurate, in one fell swoop, the president could have unsettled our allies, emboldened our adversaries, endangered our military and intelligence officers the world over, and exposed our nation to greater risk,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, said on the Senate floor.

    Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC that General McMaster’s statement was not actually a denial. “When I look at McMaster’s quote, it’s a pretty technical quote,” Mr. Sasse said. “I think it’s actually something quite different from a full rebuttal of the story.”

    But other Republicans said they were willing to reserve judgment. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday morning that he was inclined to believe the White House version of events over the news media, which he said had no way of knowing the entire story. “They were not in the room,” he said in an interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.

    “I suspect the administration will brief the Congress more fully on exactly what transpired,” Mr. Cotton said during the interview. “But I have much greater confidence in the word of H. R. McMaster on the record, in front of cameras, than I do anonymous sources in the media.”

    Still, there was evident fatigue among Republicans with the latest episode. “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, said on Bloomberg Television.

    The episode fueled questions about Mr. Trump’s relationship with Moscow at the same time that the F.B.I. and congressional committees are investigating whether his associates cooperated with Russian meddling in last year’s election. Mr. Trump has repeatedly dismissed such suspicions as false stories spread by Democrats to explain their election defeat. But his friendly approach toward President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in spite of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and other actions has stirred controversy.

    The Post reported that Mr. Trump had described details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

    Last week, American officials said they might move to ban laptops from carry-on baggage on all flights from Europe to the United States — a change that would inconvenience many business travelers, who would be forced to check computers in their luggage.

    The issue is scheduled to be the subject of a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon in Brussels between Elaine C. Duke, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security, and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Union’s commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship.

    Russia dismissed the reports on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry denied that Mr. Trump had given classified information to Russian officials, and she denigrated American news reports of the disclosure as “fake.”

    “I just landed in Madrid,” the spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, wrote on Facebook during a work trip to Spain. “I turned on the phone, and there were dozens of messages. ‘Maria Vladimirovna, is it true Trump revealed the most important secret?’”

    Ms. Zakharova called the report “the latest fake” and disparaged the newspapers that published it: “Guys, you are again reading American newspapers? You should not read them. They can be used in various ways, but there’s no need to read them — lately, this is not only harmful, but dangerous.”

    Reporting was contributed by Maggie Haberman from New York, Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow, James Kanter from Brussels, Sewell Chan from London, and Glenn Thrush, Jeremy W. Peters and Thomas Kaplan from Washington.

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