WASHINGTON Facing heavy 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.
The president took to Twitter on Tuesday to defend his actions against intense criticism, including from some of his fellow Republicans, after news reports emerged on Monday of Trump’s conversations about a planned Islamic State operation.
Two U.S. officials said Trump shared intelligence, supplied by a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State, 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.
The U.S. dollar fell on Tuesday in part due to concerns that Trump’s presidency will become caught up in controversies and he will fail to deliver on promises to overhaul the U.S. tax and healthcare systems.
“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 tweeted. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” Islamic State, or ISIS, is a common foe of Moscow and Washington.
A U.S. president has the authority to disclose even the most highly classified information at will, but U.S. and allied officials told Reuters that Trump had endangered cooperation from an ally that has some intelligence on Islamic State.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump did not know the source of the information he revealed to Kislyak and Lavrov, the public face of Russian foreign policies that are often at odds with U.S. aims.
“The president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source and method of the information either,” McMaster told reporters on Tuesday. “What the president shared was wholly appropriate,” he said.
Trump has frequently said he wants to improve U.S. relations with Moscow, damaged by years of disagreement over Russia’s role in Ukraine and its backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The president’s tweets compounded controversy over his meeting with the Russians, even after members of his senior staff played down the importance of the information he gave to Russia.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster denied on Monday night that Trump had revealed intelligence sources and methods or military operations at the Russia meeting.
Turmoil in the White House in recent weeks 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.
The euro surged more than 1 percent against the dollar on Tuesday, rising to its highest since Trump was elected president in November. Lower-than-expected U.S. housing data also dampened the dollar.
“(The story about Trump and Russia) probably is playing out as a weaker dollar on the view that Trump may not be around long enough to deliver his tax reform, which is at least partially priced into the dollar,” said RBC Capital Markets currency strategist Adam Cole, in London.
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.
During the presidential campaign Trump repeatedly assailed his Democratic rival, 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.
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 Kremlin came to Trump’s defense, calling reports that he had disclosed classified material in the White House meeting as “complete nonsense.”
Russia has denied U.S. intelligence agency findings that Moscow hacked and leaked the emails of senior U.S. Democrats in an attempt to tip the presidential election in Trump’s favor.
The two top Republicans in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were muted in their response to Trump giving information to Russia. Ryan’s office said he hoped for a full explanation, while McConnell told Bloomberg TV he wished for a little less drama from the White House.
Other Republicans, however, expressed concern. Senator Susan Collins called for the Senate Intelligence Committee to be briefed on the matter, while Bob Corker, 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,” Corker said of the White House. “And they’ve got to come to grips with all that’s happening.”
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.”
Republicans control both chambers of Congress, but the latest controversy further fired up Democrats against Trump. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer urged the White House to immediately release transcripts of the meeting with the Russians to the relevant lawmakers probing alleged interference by Russia in the election.
UPDATE 2-US allies seen cooperating despite alleged Trump secrets leak
FACTBOX-Trump on Twitter (May 16) – Russia
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Patricia Zengerle, Jeff Mason, Mark Hosenball; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry)