WASHINGTON >> Senate Democrats don’t want to let President Donald Trump forget the day he met with top Russian diplomats at the White House, even as he tries to move past allegations of possible collusion between Moscow and his presidential campaign.
They’re peppering the president’s national security team with questions about the damage they believe Trump caused by sharing top-secret intelligence with the Russians on May 10. Among their inquiries: Did Trump’s guests try to bug the Oval Office? What steps were taken to ensure Russia didn’t distribute the information with anyone else? Did the president ever consult with government information security experts?
It’s a complete 180 from a year ago when Trump and many other Republicans made Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server the centerpiece of the 2016 presidential campaign. Just as Republicans repeatedly hammered Clinton for failing to adhere strictly to the federal government’s rules for handling classified information, Democrats are lecturing Trump on the same points.
“When you deal with sensitive intelligence, you can’t be unscripted,” Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said last week of Trump’s apparently spur-of-the-moment decision. “It’s not the way to conduct business, particularly when you’re dealing with highly classified information from another source.”
The intelligence about a specific Islamic State threat that Trump disclosed to the Russians allegedly was gathered by Israel, apparently violating the confidentiality of an intelligence-sharing agreement. The president’s action also raised fears other countries would think twice before confiding in the U.S.
But Trump has rejected the criticism, arguing he has “an absolute right” as president to share information with Russia and other countries. And he posted a tweet today that underscored his mounting frustration over allegations of possible links between his presidential campaign and Moscow.
“Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News,” Trump wrote.
Presidents are in fact legally empowered to classify and declassify information at their discretion. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former Republican senator selected by Trump for the post, appeared unconcerned about Trump’s disclosure during an Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
Coats said he’d been traveling and hadn’t spoken to Trump about his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. They were accompanied by a photographer employed by Tass, a Russian state-run news agency.
“Well, I wasn’t in the room and I don’t know what the president shared,” Coats said in response to a question from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who also is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Heinrich called Coats’ answer troubling.
Heinrich has previously called attention to what he considers Trump’s indifference to security procedures. In early February, he noticed in an Associated Press photo that Trump had left the key in the lock of a security pouch presumably holding classified material on his desk while people without security clearances gathered in the Oval Office.
“Never leave a key in a classified lockbag in the presence of non-cleared people,” Heinrich tweeted, using the hashtag Classified101.
Heinrich, joined by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Tom Carper of Delaware, wrote to Coats prior to last week’s hearing and asked him to formally determine whether the president revealed secret information. If the answer is yes, they want Coats to order a review of the potential damage to national security. They also wants Coats to describe how exactly “the disclosure or compromise occurred.”
“The ability to properly safeguard classified information is a fundamental obligation of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” the senators wrote.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and wounded combat veteran, said Trump’s secret sharing is particularly baffling because top U.S. national security officials have warned that Russia is the nation’s No. 1 security threat. On May 9, the day before the Oval Office meeting, Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, the National Security Agency chief, told lawmakers that Russia had hacked France’s computer networks during its presidential election.
In a May 22 letter to Rogers, Duckworth asked if any security sweeps for listening devices were conducted after Trump hosted Lavrov and Kislyak.
Duckworth also asked Rogers whether NSA was asked by the White House prior to the meeting about the wisdom of allowing Lavrov and Kislyak into the Oval Office. If his agency was consulted, she wrote, did it approve of or express concern about a Russian media outlet bringing electronic equipment into the president’s formal workspace?
Trump administration officials have dismissed any security concerns, saying that Lavrov’s entourage went through the typical visitor screening process and that the White House is routinely swept for listening devices.
Duckworth expressed in a separate letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis her concern over Trump’s apparent affinity for Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
She asked Mattis if Trump’s “unpredictable behavior and rhetoric” is undercutting the Pentagon’s ability to combat the threat Russia poses to the U.S. and its allies.