This article has been updated.
After The Post reported that President Trump had revealed classified information in a private meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — and as other outlets confirmed it — the White House organized its response. In each case, administration officials offered carefully worded statements that often seemed to talk around what The Post had actually reported.
In light of that, we’ve compiled those statements and broken out their components. But before we get to those, it’s worth setting the context of what our story said.
The Post’s story
Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partnera. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering methodb, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threatc. …
The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involvedd. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it. …
Trump also described measures the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threate, including military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said.
Let’s run through those highlighted sections. (I’ll note here that I’m not privy to The Post’s sourcing on the story, so I know as much about the details as you do.)
a. This is an important point. The intelligence came from a partner country and was not Trump’s to reveal.
b. Note here that our report specifically indicates that the method of how the intelligence was collected wasn’t discussed.
c. This is a key point: The most significant revelation was the name of the city …
d. … since that name could be used to allow Russia to determine the intelligence asset being used or the ally that revealed it.
e. We note that Trump discussed measures being taken to counter the threat, but don’t indicate that this is classified information.
Here is how the administration responded, starting with national security adviser H.R. McMaster, whose initial response was included in the story.
“The president and the foreign minister1 reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations2 to include threats to aviation3. At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed4 and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly5.”
2. “Common threats” meaning common to the two countries in this case, just to be clear.
3. McMaster’s isolation of the threat to aviation suggests that this relates to the specific plot in The Post story. Reporting indicates that the subject of discussion was a plot to plant bombs in laptop computers.
4. This phrase will crop up a lot. McMaster is not at odds with The Post’s story, as noted above. The sources and methods were instead put at risk thanks to the revelation of details that might allow Russia to figure out who they are. To dramatically oversimplify, it’s the difference between saying “the culprit is John Smith” and saying “the culprit lives on Mulberry Street.”
5. The “already known publicly” line is interesting. In a conversation with CNN’s Chris Cuomo that aired shortly after the news broke, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi explained the problem.
“The fact is that anyone who has anything to do with intelligence, the one thing you always say is, I cannot confirm or deny that that is true,” she said. “So the president could be saying something that’s in the public domain, but confirming it to the Russians in a way that is very dangerous.” In other words, Trump may have confirmed a rumor that was already out there.
After the story broke other members of the administration who were in the room during the meeting weighed in.
Rex Tillerson, secretary of state
“During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov6 a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism. During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed7, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations8.”
6. Again, omitting Kislyak.
7. Tillerson confirms that the meeting included discussion of a specific plot.
8. He also offers the same non-denial as McMaster — but also says no military operations were discussed. That contradicts McMaster, as in the fifth highlight above.
Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy
“This story is false9. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced10.”
9. This is the first explicit denial of the story.
10. This is a narrower interpretation than either McMaster or Tillerson presented.
As the story continued to expand on Monday evening, the White House held a brief news conference during which McMaster offered a brief statement.
“There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false11. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation12. 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 known13. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those anonymous sources14. I was in the room; it didn’t happen15.”
11. This is McMaster’s first description of the story as false, but he modifies it with the phrase “as reported.” That leaves a lot of wiggle room: Is it false as reported because a minor detail was wrong? Or were major details incorrect?
12. This is an echo of his earlier statement.
13. As is this.
14. This is a point that has been seized upon in defense of Trump. If the secretary of state and national security adviser look into a camera and say it didn’t happen, why should we believe someone unwilling to be identified? The general response to a question like that, of course, is that those seeking to provide information anonymously often have a very good reason for doing so, such as seeking defense from retribution. In this specific case, there’s also the fact that — save points 9 and 11, above — the White House’s story and The Post’s story aren’t in strong conflict.
15. This is perhaps the strongest rejection of the story offered by the White House. It also appears to have been off-the-cuff, and not part of McMaster’s prepared statement.
On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting)16 which I have the absolute right to do17, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety18. Humanitarian reasons19, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism20.”
16. This is an interesting little rhetorical trick. The meeting was publicly scheduled — in the sense that the meeting was announced to the media. But it was not a public meeting that the media could attend; in fact, no American media was allowed to even photograph Lavrov and Trump together. It’s only because of a photographer who works with the Russian state news agency TASS that we have photos of the meeting — and how we learned that Kislyak was also in attendance.
17. Trump can share any non-classified information he wants to and, as president, can generally also share classified information, if he wishes. In this case, though, there are two questions: Did he mean to share a detail that revealed high-level intelligence? And, in doing so, how might Trump have betrayed the partner who gave the U.S. that intelligence?
18. Trump seems to confirm that the plot dealt with a threat to aviation.
19. Trump, a master of spin, seems to be implying that he shared this information to protect innocent civilians — for humanitarian reasons.
20. He also claims that this was, in some way, an effort to put pressure on the Russians.
A lot of analysis of Trump’s tweets suggests that he’s contradicting McMaster’s statement. Nothing in the tweets contradicts McMaster’s initial comments (in 1-5 above); the question is whether McMaster’s forceful denial (number 15) is at odds with Trump’s apparent acknowledgment of The Post’s story. The hinge here is in our number 17 — Trump’s assertion that he has an “absolute right” to share with Russia — a defense that only makes sense in the context of classified information. No one disputes his right to share non-classified information with them.
For what it’s worth, Trump’s team denies that he copped to revealing classified information.
WH/NSC spokesman Mike Anton emphatically denies that Pres Trump's tweets today confirm disclosure of classified material to Russia.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) May 16, 2017
We’ll just have to see if that comports with Trump’s next tweet.
Update: On Tuesday morning, McMaster gave another briefing to the press. Portions are included and analyzed below.
What I’m saying is really the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in national security21.
And so I think the real issue, and I think what I’d like to see really debated more, is that our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality, and those releasing information to the press that could be used, connected with other information available, to make American citizens and others more vulnerable. …
So, what I — what we don’t do is discuss what is and what isn’t classified.
What I will tell you, is in the context of that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation22 and is consistent with the routine sharing of information23 between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged. …
Well, as — as you know, the president — it is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people24. That’s what he did. …
He made the decision in the context of the conversation25, which was wholly appropriate.
So, let’s just — I think it’s worth recapping one thing here.
The president was meeting with — with the foreign minister about the terrorist threat. He’d also raised some difficult issues: what we expected in terms of different behavior from Russia in key areas like Ukraine, and as in Syria.
But then the president was emphasizing, “Hey, we have some common interests here. We have to work together in some critical areas.” And we have an area of cooperation with transnational terrorist organizations, ISIS in particular, an organization that had already taken down a Russian airliner and murdered over 200 people in October of 2015. …
OK, so, all of you are very familiar with the threat from ISIS. All of you are very familiar with the territory it controls. If you were to say, “Hey, from where do you think a threat might come from territory that ISIS controls?,” you would probably be able to name a few cities, I would think26.
And so it was nothing that you would not know from open source reporting27 in terms of a source of concern. And it had all to do with operations that are already ongoing, had been made public for months. …
As I mentioned already, we don’t say what’s classified, what’s not classified. What I will tell you again is that what the president shared was wholly appropriate. The story combined what was leaked with other information and then insinuated about sources and methods. So I wanted to make clear to everybody that the president in no way compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation28. …
He shared information in a way that is wholly appropriate. And I should just make maybe the statement here that the president wasn’t even aware, you know, where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.29
21. McMaster slightly amends his comment from Monday evening, saying that the premise of The Post’s article was wrong — that there was any sort of security lapse.
22. McMaster repeats the “wholly appropriate” phrase several times, apparently alluding to the idea that the president can discuss what he wants as he sees fit, in line with our number 17, above.
23. As noted at the blog Just Security, declassification is not routinely done mid-conversation by the president.
24. As in number 22, but here McMaster suggests that Trump’s decision to provide this information to the Russians was a function of protecting the American people.
25. That decision, McMaster says in response to a question, was made by Trump in the moment, not as a function of a decision made in advance of the meeting.
26. Here McMaster seeks to downplay the importance of the city Trump named — which, by itself, appears to be a tacit admission that the name of the city was, as we reported, a contentious issue. CNN later reported that it had been cautioned in March not to reveal the name of the city as it might “get people killed.”
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) May 16, 2017
27. See number 5, above.
28. This, like 21, is a revision of McMaster’s previous comments, but the strongest yet. The assertion that Trump “in no way compromised any sources or methods” is significant, the first unnuanced rejection of The Post’s thesis that Trump offered intelligence that might have tipped off the Russians.
29. This is a particularly interesting comment that was left unaddressed by McMaster. Trump wasn’t informed of the source of the information, he said, or on how it was gathered — implying that Trump therefore couldn’t have revealed anything he shouldn’t have to the Russians. But this brings us all the way back to number 4 on our list: That was not what The Post reported.