U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended having disclosed information to senior Russian officials last week, saying he had an "absolute right" to do so and had shared facts to get Moscow to step up its fight against the Islamic State militant group.
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The president took to Twitter to counter a torrent of criticism, including from his fellow Republicans, after reports that during a White House meeting he had revealed highly classified information about a planned Islamic State operation.
Two U.S. officials said Trump shared the intelligence, supplied by an ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamist group, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during a meeting in the Oval Office last Wednesday.
The disclosures late on Monday 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 turmoil 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.
Russia has denied such meddling, and Trump bristles at any suggestion he owed his Nov. 8 victory to Moscow.
"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 said on Twitter. "Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
In a later tweet, Trump took aim at "LEAKERS in the intelligence community," a frequent target of his months-old administration.
Trump repeatedly assailed his Democratic rival in the presidential election, 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.
The Kremlin came to Trump's defense on Tuesday, calling reports that he had disclosed classified material in the White House meeting as "complete nonsense."
Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, issued statements saying no sources, methods or military operations were discussed at the Russian meeting.
McMaster said the story, initially reported by The Washington Post, was false.
The U.S. officials told Reuters that while the president has the authority to disclose even the most highly classified information at will, in this case he did so without consulting the ally that provided it, which threatens to jeopardize a long-standing intelligence-sharing agreement.
U.S. allies including Australia, New Zealand and Japan cited the White House denials and said intelligence sharing would continue. Some analysts, however, said the reports could undermine trust between partners.
The reports came days before Trump departs on Friday for his first overseas trip as president, to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium.
The two top Republicans in Congress, which is controlled by the party, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were muted in their response. Ryan's office said he hoped for a full explanation, while McConnell told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday he wished for a little less drama from the White House.
Other Republicans, however, expressed concern. Senator Susan Collins said on Tuesday that even though the president has legal authority to disclose classified information, "it would be very troubling if he did share such sensitive reporting with the Russians."
She called for the Senate Intelligence Committee to be briefed on the matter.
Bob Corker, the Republican 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," he said of the White House. "And they’ve got to come to grips with all that’s happening."
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Patricia Zengerle, Jeff Mason, Mark Hosenball; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Alistair Bell; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Frances Kerry)