World

Trump defends sharing 'terrorism' facts with Russians

U.S. President Donald Trump defended revealing information to Russian officials, saying in a pair of tweets Tuesday that he shared "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety" and had "the absolute right" to do so.

U.S. president says he has 'absolute right' to share information about 'terrorism and airline flight safety'

H. R. McMaster, Donald Trump's national security adviser, on Tuesday said that whatever the U.S. president shared with Russian officials was 'wholly appropriate,' a phrase he used 10 times during his media briefing. (CBC)

U.S. President Donald Trump defended revealing information to Russian officials, saying in a pair of tweets Tuesday that he shared "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety" and had "the absolute right" to do so.

Trump was responding to reports Monday that he revealed highly classified information to senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week, putting a source of intelligence on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at risk.

But Trump tweeted that he shared the information for "humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."

Trump said he wanted to share with Russia "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety." He noted that as president, he has an "absolute right" to do this.

Trump, during a photo opportunity with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, briefly addressed the issue after reporters shouted questions about the reports.

"We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. Our fight is against ISIS," said Trump.

"We're going to have a lot of great success over the next coming years and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible."

The reports by the Washington Post and others drew strong condemnation from Democrats and a rare rebuke of Trump from some Republican lawmakers.

White House officials denounced the report, saying the president did not disclose intelligence sources or methods to the Russians, though officials did not deny that classified information was disclosed in the May 10 meeting.

Discussion 'wholly appropriate'

Before Trump's meeting with Erdogan at the White House, national security adviser H. R. McMaster held a media briefing Tuesday and was asked about what Trump discussed with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., in the Oval Office last Wednesday.

"In the context of that discussion, 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," McMaster said. He did not provide details of what was said.

"We don't say what's classified, what's not classified," said McMaster. "What [Trump] shared was wholly appropriate."

European allies express concern

A senior European intelligence official told The Associated Press that his country might stop sharing information with the United States if it confirms Trump shared classified details with Russian officials. The official said Tuesday that doing so "could be a risk for our sources." The official spoke only on condition that neither he nor his country be identified, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Senior German legislator Burkhard Lischka of the Social Democratic Party said if it turns out Trump "passed on internal intelligence matters, that would be highly worrying."

He said if the U.S. president "passes this information to other governments at will, then Trump becomes a security risk for the entire Western world." 

The U.S. president and the Russian foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation," McMaster said on Monday. "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."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also disputed the Post report. He said Trump discussed a range of subjects with the Russians, including "common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism." The nature of specific threats was discussed, he said, but not sources, methods or military operations.

'More nonsense,' says Kremlin

The Post, citing current and former U.S. officials, said Trump shared details about an ISIS terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft with Lavrov and Kislyak. The ambassador has been a central player in the snowballing controversy surrounding possible co-ordination between Trump's campaign and Russia's election meddling.

The anonymous officials told the Post that the information Trump relayed during the Oval Office meeting had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement. They said it was considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman denied the report. On Facebook on Tuesday, Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, described the reports as "yet another fake."

Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday dismissed the reports as "yet more nonsense" and said that Moscow doesn't "want to have to do anything with it," adding that "there is nothing to confirm or deny."

Trump at odds with intelligence community

The revelations could further damage Trump's already fraught relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies.

He has openly questioned the competency of intelligence officials and challenged their high-confidence assessment that Russia meddled in last year's presidential election to help him win. His criticism has been followed by a steady stream of leaks to the media that have been damaging to Trump and exposed an FBI investigation into his associates' possible ties to Russia.

The disclosure also risks harming his credibility with U.S. partners around the world ahead of his first overseas trip. The White House was already reeling from its botched handling of Trump's decision last week to fire James Comey, the FBI director who was overseeing the Russia investigation. The meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak occurred the day after Comey was fired.

A European security official said sharing sensitive information could dampen the trust between the United States and its intelligence sharing partners. "It wouldn't likely stop partners from sharing life-saving intelligence with the Americans, but it could impact the trust that has been built, particularly if sharing such information exposes specific intelligence gathering methods," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about such intelligence sharing.

The revelation also prompted cries of hypocrisy. Trump spent the campaign arguing that his opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, should be locked up for careless handling of classified information.

The Post said the intelligence partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russian officials. By doing so, Trump would have jeopardized co-operation from an ally familiar with the inner workings of ISIS, and make other allies — or even U.S. intelligence officials — wary about sharing future top secret details with the president.

Trump speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak at the White House on May 10. On Tuesday, after it was reported Trump revealed highly classified information, he tweeted he shared info for 'humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.' (Russian Foreign Ministry/EPA)

Afterward, White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency, the newspaper said.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats expressed concern about the report.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, told reporters the Trump White House "has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order." He described the White House as "on a downward spiral."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York also called the story "disturbing," adding, "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."

With files from CBC News

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