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Trump engulfed by new crisis over sharing classified information


May 19, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump defended his conduct after sharing highly sensitive intelligence in a recent meeting with Russian officials, saying it was his “absolute right” to discuss certain details in the context of combatting terrorism.

Mr. Trump revealed classified information obtained from a U.S. ally on a terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, potentially jeopardizing the source of the intelligence, according to The Washington Post.

The ally in question is Israel, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, a country that Mr. Trump is scheduled to visit next week as part of his first trip abroad as President.

Explainer: Trump’s shared secrets with Russia: The fallout, and what we know so far

Related: Trump's actions pose questions about future of Canada-U.S. intelligence sharing: experts

The revelations set off a new firestorm even as the administration continued to struggle with criticism of last week’s dismissal of James Comey, the director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Trump abruptly fired Mr. Comey in the midst of a continuing investigation into possible collusion between the President’s advisers and Russia.

Late Tuesday afternoon, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey in February to drop a federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The White House denied the account of the conversation.

In the span of a single week, Mr. Trump has been engulfed by two political crises. Both are of Mr. Trump’s own making and raise uncomfortable questions about whether the President has a firm grasp on the far-reaching consequences of his actions. While the President has the authority to reveal secrets, his apparent choice to do so in a meeting with representatives of a U.S. adversary left experts stunned.

The deepening sense of turmoil emanating from the White House is alarming U.S. allies abroad and prompting public expressions of concern from Republican lawmakers. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and a stalwart supporter of Mr. Trump, said in a television interview Tuesday that he “would like a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things.”

Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, went further, saying in a statement that it would be “very troubling” if the President had shared classified information with Russia and noting that such a disclosure could “discourage our allies from sharing future information vital to our security.” On Tuesday evening, Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was expected to brief lawmakers.

The White House sought to contain the damage on Tuesday. H.R. McMaster, the current national security adviser, told reporters that it was “wholly appropriate” for Mr. Trump “to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people.”

Mr. McMaster said the information was conveyed to Russia’s foreign minister during a discussion of the threat posed by Islamic State, and in particular the danger to commercial airliners. Mr. Trump decided to share the details “in the context of the conversation,” said Mr. McMaster, suggesting that it was a spontaneous move by the President and not a step he previously discussed with his advisers.

Several media reports indicated that the information shared by Mr. Trump with Russia was classified as top secret and its dissemination even more tightly limited due to its sensitivity – indeed, it was not shared with Britain or Canada, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Intelligence sharing is always difficult and fraught, said Juliette Kayyem, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, and the recent meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian officials will complicate future co-operation. “The idea that this is Kumbaya, even between Britain and the U.S., or Canada and the U.S., is incorrect,” said Ms. Kayyem. “It’s a muscle that has to be nurtured.”

As president, Mr. Trump occupies a unique position with respect to classified information. If other government officials reveal secrets, the consequences could range from losing their job to getting indicted. But Mr. Trump, as commander-in-chief, sits atop the system of classified information.

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