Congress demands more information on Trump's meeting with Russians
After top officials in the White House refuted reports that President Donald Trump had shared highly classified information with members of the Russian government during an Oval Office meeting last week, the president took to Twitter to confirm that he had in fact shared information with the Russians and was within his right to do so.
The apparent contradiction of statements made by Trump and his National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left many members of Congress confused and demanding more information about what exactly was discussed in the April 10 meeting.
The House Intelligence Committee is expected to learn more about the content of that meeting at a closed briefing on Tuesday evening with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo. According to one source, the briefing was scheduled weeks ago, but given the latest developments, some of the content of the briefing has changed.
In his own statement on Twitter, Trump confirmed that he discussed "facts pertaining ... to terrorism and airline safety" during the meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He defended the exchange noting that as president he has "the absolute right" to share information he deems appropriate.
National Security Adviser McMaster appeared before reporters on Tuesday to defend the president for the second time in 24 hours, saying the discussion the president had with Russian officials was "wholly appropriate."
Three separate news outlets citing anonymous sources inside the administration reported on Monday that Trump revealed classified information on civilian aviation safety measures and counterterrorism efforts during his meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. The information Trump divulged was provided to the U.S. through an intelligence-sharing partnership and was considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, the Washington Post reported.
McMaster disputed reports suggesting that Trump disclosed anything that could have compromised intelligence sources, methods or military operations. The information shared with the Russians was relevant "in the context" of the discussion, McMaster said, which revolved around the "common threat" posed by the Islamic State in light of the terrorist group downing a Russian civilian aircraft in 2015.
Members of Congress are now struggling to get their political bearings straight, between the apparently contradictory reports on the president's Russia meeting, and last week's announcement that Trump fired FBI director James Comey.
Members of both parties are expressing a strong interest in having information about the Oval Office meeting with the Russians made available to the relevant committees, particularly if there is a transcript of the meeting. The White House has not yet confirmed the existence of a transcript.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, issued a statement early in the day saying that her committee "should be briefed on this important issue immediately." Collins also raised concerns that even though the president can legally disclose classified information, "it would be very troubling if he did share such sensitive reporting with the Russians."
Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters that he is anticipating a briefing from the White House "soon" that will clarify the actual content of Trump's discussions with Russian officials.
Top Democrats have begun their pursuit of the full text of the Oval Office discussion. Asked if he was expecting a briefing from the White House, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said simply, "I hope we get a transcript. That's what we're looking for."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took the floor early on Tuesday to demand a White House transcript in light of the "conflicting reports" from officials who were in the room.
"We need to be able to quickly assess whether or not this report is true and what exactly was said," Schumer noted. "So I am calling on the White House to make the transcript of the meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador available to the congressional intelligence committees as soon as possible."
The Republican leadership of the Senate was less preoccupied with the reports on Trump's meeting, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell telling reporters that he is confident that the Intelligence Committee will "handle that matter perfectly."
The leader then affirmed his confidence in President Trump to handle classified intelligence, but acknowledged that after the latest series of incidents, it would be "helpful" to his members "to have less drama emanating from the White House."
Many other Republicans have followed McConnell's lead and they are withholding any criticism or concern until they have more information.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told Sinclair Broadcast Group that he believes at a minimum, the members of the appropriate oversight committees should be briefed on the president's conversation, "so that we can validate whether there should be a concern or not."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) largely dismissed the president's latest Russia gaffe, saying the story is "pretty overblown."
On the House side, a small handful of Democrats have seized on the report and Trump's dismissal of FBI director Comey to begin calls for President Trump's impeachment.
Rep. Al Green of Texas was the first to openly insist on impeachment, but other Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters of California have hinted at the possibility.
Democratic leaders in the House including Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer have both dismissed the idea of impeachment at this early stage of the presidency, arguing that such a serious action should only take place if warranted by the facts.
In a briefing with reporters, Hoyer openly questioned whether Trump should continue to have access to classified information. Citing a July 2016 statement from House Speaker Paul Ryan arguing that Hillary Clinton should be denied access to classified information after her handling of it was deemed "extremely careless" by the FBI.
"I have yet to see [Speaker Ryan's] observation on whether or not President Trump should be given classified information," Hoyer suggested.
Trump's alleged divulging of U.S. partners' secrets to the Russians has also raised concerns from a foreign policy perspective.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the news of Trump's alleged revelations was especially troubling on the eve of the president's first major overseas visit. On that trip, Trump is expected to discuss national security issues with American partners in Saudi Arabia and Israel. He is also scheduled to attend the NATO summit in Brussels, where members of the alliance are likely to raise the issue of increased Russian aggression in Europe.
Wyden warned that only days out from the foreign trip, the behavior at the White House and from President Trump "is not confidence-inspiring in terms of our relationships with our allies."
Ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland issued a statement warning that the president's actions "potentially compromised our partnership with a country that is giving us critically important intelligence information."
Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was notably quiet when talking to reporters this afternoon, saying he has "said enough for a few days" on the administration.
As the news of Trump's alleged disclosures to the Russians was breaking, Corker criticized the White House, saying it was in a "downward spiral." He told Bloomberg News that "the White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has been a staunch supporter of Trump on Capitol Hill and appeared relatively unfazed by the latest news from the White House. Asked if he wanted to see a transcript from Trump's conversation with the Russians, Shelby noted that while everyone is curious about what happened, "very few people need to see it."
When asked if he believed Trump will be able to recover from the latest controversy surrounding Russia, Shelby shot back, "Everything is another day."