By David Thornton
The Washington Examiner and other outlets reported that several senior staff officials made statements that disputed the Washington Poststory released earlier on Monday.
“The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known,” National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster told reporters Monday evening.
A separate statement quotes McMaster as saying, “During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism. During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were [sic] discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a written statement, “The nature of specific threats were [sic] discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, who also attended the meeting with the Russians, released a separate statement that said, “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”
The Post reported that President Trump revealed “highly classified information” that “had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.” The Post story said that the source of the information had not given the US permission to share it with Russia.
“This is code-word information,” a US official told the Post. The source claimed that Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
The Post story stopped short of claiming that the president had revealed “sources or methods,” the phrase used by both McMaster and Tillerson in their denials. The story did say that Trump’s sharing of the information endangers cooperation from allies. It is possible that sources could be identified and methods could be deduced based on the information itself.
The Post story and the carefully worded denials of the Trump Administration officials can both be true. Trump could have revealed classified information without revealing sources, methods or military operations. Discussing “common threats” could easily entail information that is classified, especially if it came from a source deep within the Islamic State.
McMaster’s qualification that the story, “as reported,” is false, leads to the assumption that some part of the story is true.
The Post report did qualify that, even if President Trump, did reveal classified information to the Russians, the president has broad powers to declassify material so the revelation would probably not be illegal. There is a possibility, however, that it would endanger sources and relations with other countries, making future intelligence gathering more difficult.
Even without legal repercussions, the allegations are embarrassing to Trump. During the campaign, he was very critical of Hillary Clinton who, as secretary of state, compromised classified material by using a private email server in violation of government regulations. At one point, Trump tweeted, “Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team ‘were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.’ Not fit!”