President Donald Trump came under pressure on Tuesday from U.S. lawmakers, including his fellow Republicans, to explain why he shared highly sensitive intelligence information with senior Russian officials at a meeting in the Oval Office last week.
U.S. officials said Trump discussed intelligence about Islamic State with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak at last Wednesday’s meeting.
The officials said the information had been supplied by a U.S. ally in the fight against the militant group. The New York Times identified the ally as Israel but two U.S. national security sources said they doubted the report.
The disclosure rocked the administration as it struggled to move past the backlash over Trump’s abrupt firing on May 9 of FBI Director James Comey, whose agency was investigating potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked the White House for more information about reports that Trump gave intelligence information to the Russians, a spokeswoman for the panel said.
Congressional investigators are expected to seek copies of any notes taken during the meeting, a congressional source said.
While not unprecedented, it is a rare privilege for a foreign minister to be granted bilateral talks in the Oval Office with a U.S. president.
Moscow’s top diplomat, Lavrov represents Russian foreign policies that are often sharply at odds with U.S. aims in Syria and Europe.
Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday he had an "absolute right" to share facts with Russia so that it can be more active in fighting Islamic State militants.
A U.S. president has the authority to disclose even the most highly classified information at will, but U.S. and allied officials said that by giving information to Russia, Trump had endangered cooperation from an ally that has intelligence on Islamic State.
U.S President Donald Trump speaks to the media in the Roosevelt Room of the White House after meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock, a Republican, called for a closed-door briefing for lawmakers.
"We need to have immediate classified briefings on what occurred at this meeting so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders and know the impact on our national security, our allies, and our men and women protecting our country," Comstock said in a statement.
TRUMP’S "ABSOLUTE RIGHT"
Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday to defend his actions.
"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, holds territory in Iraq and Syria and is a common foe of Moscow and Washington.
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.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump did not know the source of the information he disclosed to the Russians.
"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. "What the president shared was wholly appropriate," he said.
Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Trump’s disclosure only reinforced Democrats’ call for an independent investigation.
"I would hope that at some point the Republicans will join with the Democrats and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to address this.’ This is indefensible," Cummings told MSNBC.
"Something’s not happening day after day… It’s happening hour after hour," Cummings added. "We need an independent commission."
Turmoil in the White House in recent weeks has overshadowed Republican legislative priorities such as healthcare and tax reform.
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.
Controversy over Russia has also 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 favour. Moscow denies that.
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, travelling to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium on visits that will test his foreign policy skills.
The two top Republicans in Congress, House 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 said 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."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Patricia Zengerle, Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry and Howard Goller)