FILE PHOTO: A combination of file photos showing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. President Donald Trump - Reuters
WASHINGTON: Facing a deluge of criticism over his handling of highly classified information, U.S. President Donald Trump defended having shared "facts" with senior Russian officials, saying on Tuesday he had an "absolute right" to do so and had been trying to get Moscow to be more active in combating Islamic State militants.
Trump's acknowledgement that he had given sensitive information during a White House meeting last week undercut intense efforts by senior aides to play down the incident on Monday evening, after news reports emerged of Trump's conversations about a planned Islamic State operation.
The president took to Twitter on Tuesday to defend his actions in the face of intense criticism, including from some of his fellow Republicans.
Two U.S. officials said Trump shared the intelligence, supplied by a U.S. ally in the fight against the militant Islamist group, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during an Oval Office meeting last Wednesday.
The disclosures roiled the administration as it struggled to move past the backlash over Trump's abrupt firing on May 9 of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating potential ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Russia has denied such meddling, and Trump bristles at any suggestion he owed his Nov. 8 victory to Moscow.
"As President 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," Trump said on Twitter. "Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
A U.S. president has the authority to disclose even the most highly classified information at will, but multiple U.S. and allied officials told Reuters that Trump had endangered cooperation from an ally that has some intelligence on Islamic State.
In his tweets, Trump did not dispute media reports, initially from The Washington Post, that he revealed details that could jeopardize intelligence capabilities.
That appeared to put him at odds with members of his own senior staff. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster denied on Monday that Trump had revealed intelligence sources and methods or military operations at the Russia meeting.
In a later tweet, Trump took aim at "LEAKERS in the intelligence community," a frequent target of his months-old administration.
The U.S. officials told Reuters that Trump revealed the information to the Russians without consulting the ally that provided it, which threatens to jeopardize a long-standing intelligence-sharing agreement.
U.S. allies including Australia, New Zealand and Japan cited the White House denials and said intelligence sharing would continue. Some analysts, however, said the reports could undermine trust between partners.
The reports came days before Trump departs on Friday for his first overseas trip as president, traveling to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium on visits that will test his foreign policy skills.
The turmoil has overshadowed Republican legislative priorities such as healthcare and tax reform and laid bare sharp divisions between the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded in January that Russia had tried to influence the election in Trump's favor.
Trump repeatedly assailed his Democratic rival in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton, for her handling of classified information by email while she was secretary of state. The FBI concluded after an investigation last year that there were no grounds to pursue any charges against Clinton.
The Kremlin came to Trump's defense, calling reports that he had disclosed classified material in the White House meeting as "complete nonsense." Trump has frequently said he wants better relations with Moscow.
The two top Republicans in Congress, which is controlled by the party, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were muted in their response. Ryan's office said he hoped for a full explanation, while McConnell told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday he wished for a little less drama from the White House.
Other Republicans, however, expressed concern. Senator Susan Collins said on Tuesday that even though the president has legal authority to disclose classified information, "it would be very troubling if he did share such sensitive reporting with the Russians."
She called for the Senate Intelligence Committee to be briefed on the matter.
Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Monday the allegations were "very, very troubling."
"Obviously, they’re in a downward spiral right now," he said of the White House. "And they’ve got to come to grips with all that’s happening."
U.S. Senator John McCain, a Republican foreign policy hawk who has frequently criticized Trump, said the reports that the president shared sensitive intelligence with Russian officials "are deeply disturbing."