Politics

White House Shifts Talking Points Again on Russia Disclosure

National security adviser fits reaction to Trump tweets

Sen. Todd Young is among the Republicans who say the latest news puts a premium on the Intelligence Committee getting to the bottom of its Russia investigation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The White House on Tuesday injected yet another twist into its efforts to defend President Donald Trump after he admitted to disclosing highly classified information with senior Russian diplomats.

One of Trump’s top aides on Tuesday defended Trump’s sharing classified information about an Islamic State plot with Russian diplomats, saying it was “wholly appropriate” given the conversation. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, also contended Trump was unaware about the source of the information.

“What I will do is tell you that in the context of that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister is wholly appropriate in that conversation,” McMaster said. 

He appeared in the White House briefing room nearly two hours sooner than initially intended as Trump’s senior staff attempted to stanch the bleeding from what even Republican lawmakers are calling the latest self-inflicted wound to plague the still-young administration. Instead, they raised a list of new questions about the level of national security information that is being shared with and consumed by the former reality television star.

[Trump Appears to Confirm Report He Gave Russians Classified Info]

McMaster ended the relatively short briefing by opening a new line of defense of the president, saying Trump was not aware of nor briefed about the source of the intelligence information about an alleged ISIS plot involving laptop computers and passenger airliners bound for the United States. According to multiple reports, the intelligence was shared with U.S. officials by an unnamed American ally.

That means Trump appears to have known the information was classified, but would not have been in a position to compromise either the country who provided it or the individual intelligence asset who obtained the information, according to McMaster’s account.

Yet, in a morning tweet, the president offered a full-throated defense of his actions last week while meeting with senior Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. Trump declared he has an “absolute right to” declassify anything on a whim. On that matter, sitting presidents do have the legal authority to instantly declassify just about anything.

But the latest shift in the White House’s explanation raises questions about just what his top national security aides are telling the commander in chief, as well as whether Trump fully understands the often-complex spider web of allies and human spies that produce such sensitive intelligence products.

Reporters did not get a chance to ask further questions of McMaster after he offered the latest explanation. The Army three-star general then left the briefing room without taking another question.

McMaster told reporters he stands behind his description of the initial Washington Post report about Trump’s conversations with the Russians, which appeared carefully worded. On Monday evening, he said the article, “as it came out tonight, is false.”

But then Trump's tweets Tuesday morning contradicted that, as he confirmed he did share information with the Russians. 

Trump not only appeared to contradict McMaster, but the three-star general’s deputy.

“This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced,” Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy, who also attended the Oval Office meeting with the Russian officials, said in a statement Monday. 

A day later, McMaster said Trump’s decision to disclose the ISIS laptop-passenger airliner plot to the Russian officials was appropriate given the conversation they were having last week in the Oval Office. That chat was about common threats, and the security adviser seemed to say indirectly that the president felt Moscow had a right to know about the ISIS plot since Islamic extremists took down a Russian passenger airliner in 2015.

Given that, Trump’s disclosure of classified information to Russian officials was “wholly appropriate” to both that conversation and America’s intel-sharing relationships with partners, McMaster said. He also contended that U.S. allies have been briefed on the laptop plot, though he declined to go into specifics about which ones or whether those disclosures came before or after the Trump-Russian diplomats meeting last Wednesday.

The fast-moving matter has Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill reeling, with even some members of Trump’s own party expressing concerns.

[Senators React With Alarm, Caution to Report That Trump Revealed Classified Info]

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, called the matter an “incredibly serious situation.”

It is “essential that our bipartisan investigation [by] the Intelligence Committee move forward and that the administration cooperates fully in that effort,” he said of the Senate panel’s probe of Russian election meddling and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Some of the Democratic Party’s most left-wing members have started using the ‘I-word,’ but their leaders are advising caution — for now.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that what he viewed as incompetence, disarray and conflicts of interest in the first five months of the Trump administration was “beyond anything that I have ever experienced.”

The Maryland Democrat stopped short of calling on Trump leaving the White House: “It’s too early to talk about impeachment.”

Rema Rahman and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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