President Trump's national security adviser said Tuesday that the president's decision to reveal highly classified information during a meeting with Russian officials last week was "wholly appropriate" — the latest attempt by the White House to contain the explosive disclosure that Trump potentially jeopardized a crucial intelligence source on the Islamic State.
H.R. McMaster, the president's top security adviser, repeatedly described the president's actions in a press briefing just a day after a Washington Post story revealed that Trump had shared deeply sensitive information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during an Oval Office meeting last week.
"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. "It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people. That’s what he did."
McMaster refused to confirm whether the information the president shared with the Russians was highly classified. However, because the president has broad authority to declassify information, it is unlikely that his disclosures to the Russians were illegal — as they would have been had just about anyone else in government shared the same secrets. But the classified information he shared with a geopolitical foe was nonetheless explosive, having been provided by a critical U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so delicate that some details were withheld even from top allies and other government officials.
McMaster added that Trump made a spur-of-the-moment decision to share the information in the context of the conversation he was having with the Russian officials. He said that "the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from" and had not been briefed on the source.
"I wanted to make clear to everybody that the president in no way compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation," the national security adviser said.
McMaster's pushback came just hours after Trump himself acknowledged Tuesday morning in a pair of tweets that he had indeed revealed highly classified information to Russia — a stunning confirmation of the Washington Post story and a move that seemed to contradict his own White House team after it scrambled to deny the report.
Trump's tweets tried to explain away the news, which emerged late Monday, that he had shared sensitive, “code-word” information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during the White House meeting last week.
Trump described his talks with the Russians as “an openly scheduled” meeting at the White House. In fact, the gathering was closed to all U.S. media, although a photographer for the Russian state-owned news agency was allowed into the Oval Office, prompting national security concerns.
“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 wrote Tuesday morning. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Trump's tweets undercut his administration's frantic effort Monday night to contain the damaging report. The White House trotted out three senior administration officials — McMaster, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — to attack the reports, though they never quite said the initial report was incorrect. Instead, they insisted, as McMaster did again Tuesday, that the president had never revealed sensitive sources and methods.
The president's admission follows a familiar pattern. Last week, after firing FBI Director James B. Comey, the White House originally claimed that the president was acting in response to a memo provided by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
But in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, Trump later admitted that he had made the decision to fire Comey well before Rosenstein's memo, in part because he was frustrated by the director's investigation into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russian government.
At the time, Trump was surprised by the almost universal bipartisan backlash to his decision, and he raged at his staff, threatening to shake up his already tumultuous West Wing. His communications team — Communications Director Mike Dubke and press secretary Sean Spicer — bore the brunt of the president's ire.
On Monday night, following the Washington Post story, the president again was frustrated with Dubke and Spicer, according to someone with knowledge of the situation.
But his decision Tuesday to undermine his own West Wing staff in a series of tweets is unlikely to help him bring stability to his chaotic administration, just days before he departs on a 10-day trip abroad.
In a later tweet, Trump returned to one of his favorite topics when accused of wrongdoing — leaks.
“I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” Trump wrote.