White House Defends Trump's Conversation With Russian Officials

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 11:45 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been another day of damage control at the White House. The Trump administration is on the defensive over reports that the president revealed classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador at a White House meeting last week. The president's national security adviser denies that Trump did anything inappropriate. As White House staffers try to make the case for their boss, other Republicans are growing frustrated with this undisciplined White House.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The president legally has the authority to declassify anything he wants. Is that what aides are saying happened here?

HORSLEY: Well, White House aides are careful not to be too specific about what was or was not classified. What we do know is that in his meeting last week with the Russian foreign minister, Trump talked about a potential terrorist threat from ISIS. And The Washington Post and others say in doing so, he revealed information so sensitive it had not been widely shared even within the U.S. government. Now, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster insists Trump did not do anything wrong.

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H R MCMASTER: It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people.

HORSLEY: But after that meeting with the foreign minister, the president's own counterterrorism adviser was concerned enough, he alerted U.S. intelligence agencies about what the president had said.

SHAPIRO: Explain what the worry would be about the president sharing this kind of information with the Russians.

HORSLEY: Well, the concern is that in sharing the information, Trump might have compromised future intelligence gathering operations. Now, White House officials have been very specific in rebutting these press accounts, saying the president did not tell Russians exactly how the information was obtained, what the intelligence community calls sources and methods. And in fact, McMaster said today Trump couldn't have disclosed that information.

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MCMASTER: The president wasn't even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either.

HORSLEY: But the concern is even if Trump himself didn't know the sources and methods, the information he shared with the Russians was specific enough they could figure out where it came from. Now, there are reports this evening in The New York Times and elsewhere that Israel was the source of this information. The White House isn't commenting on that. Israel's ambassador issued a statement saying Israel still has full confidence in its intelligence sharing relationship with the U.S.

SHAPIRO: This morning, Trump tweeted that he had every right to share the information with Russia. Did he?

HORSLEY: Well, as you noted, presidents can declassify information at will. Trump's tweet, though, was actually kind of subdued as he addressed this criticism. He said he wanted to share the information with Russia to encourage that country to step up its fight against ISIS, and he repeated that idea later today at the White House.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to have a lot of great success over the next coming years, and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible.

HORSLEY: The president was speaking there during a meeting with the president of Turkey, one of a number of key meetings he's holding this week as he gets ready to set out on his first foreign trip. But you know, Ari, those preparations have really been overshadowed by this controversy. As the president was standing at the White House door for a ceremonial welcome for the Turkish president, you could hear reporters shouting, did you reveal classified information to Russia?

SHAPIRO: Scott, take a step back for us. At this time last week, the White House - or shortly after this time last week, the White House was defending the surprise dismissal of the FBI director, James Comey. Now they're defending his conversation with the Russians. How is this all affecting the larger agenda?

HORSLEY: Yes, one chaotic chapter eclipses another. There's no question this is all taking a toll. You know, White House staffers and even the president himself just were visibly fatigued today, and there's some fatigue setting in on Capitol Hill as well. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said this afternoon that, you know, Republicans are not concerned with Trump's handling of classified information. But he conceded to Bloomberg TV he'd rather be talking about tax cuts and repealing Obamacare.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things.

HORSLEY: Not much hope for that, though, as the president sets out on this international odyssey that begins in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley speaking with us from the White House. Thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.