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Sen. Risch: Trump fully entitled to declassify information

May 16, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, joins John Yang to discuss allegations that President Trump passed classified intelligence from another nation to the Russians, and why he sees the president as having an obligation to declassify information, as well as his concerns about how the story was leaked to the press.
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JOHN YANG: And let’s keep our focus on Capitol Hill and to Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho.

He’s a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

I spoke with him earlier this evening, just as the story on the Comey memo broke.

Senator Risch, welcome.

I want to begin by asking you about a story that The New York Times has just posted about a memo, a contemporaneous memo that former FBI Director James Comey wrote after a meeting with the president on the day that Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser.

He quotes the president as asking him to let the investigation into Flynn go: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”

He interprets it, Mr. Comey interprets it as asking for an FBI investigation not to go forward.

Do you have any reaction to this?

SEN. JAMES RISCH, R-Idaho: Haven’t seen it. Don’t know anything about it. Haven’t read it. And before I comment on it, I want a lot more — I would want to know a lot more about it than what I do. But thanks for asking.

JOHN YANG: I understand.

So, let’s move on to the news, the other news of the day, the allegations or the suggestion that President Trump gave — shared this classified information with the Russian officials in the Oval Office.

Are you satisfied with the White House explanation? Or do you have any other further questions?

SEN. JAMES RISCH: Oh, I don’t really need the White House explanation on this. There is only one person on the planet who can make the decision whether to declassify something and whether to talk to someone outside of those of us that are cleared with the security, and that’s the president of the United States.

If, indeed, it was on the subject that — and I’m neither going to confirm or deny that it was — but it was on the subject of airliner safety, I believe the president, obviously, had the legal authority to do it. He can declassify at any time.

But, secondly, I think he has an obligation under his oath as president of the United States, when he in his judgment determines it’s in the best interests of the people of the United States, to declassify something and do it.

The national media has treated this story as if this was a one-off, like this never happens. Look, the president of the United States deals every day with heads of other countries, with high-level people of other countries. And he constantly discusses classified information with them.

Not only can he do that. He should do that, because we exchange classified information with almost every country on the face of the Earth, with the exception of a couple of them. And we — even ones that we’re not particularly friendly with, we do have overlapping interests in things like airline safety.

And so if, indeed, that was the subject, and that’s what’s been reported, he should be commended for that. The real story here is, there’s a weasel here. And that is the person who reported about this conversation. This is a person who is a traitor.

They betrayed their own country. They betrayed their families and their neighbors. And when you disclose classified information, classified conversations that you have access to, it is an act of treason. It’s unfortunate we can’t get that person identified.

But he or she should be held to answer for that and treated as any treasonous person would be.

JOHN YANG: Senator, you say that the president can declassify any information, any classified information.

I understand that’s true for U.S. intelligence products. But this was an intelligence — intelligence developed by another country. Can he also declassify material given by another country’s intelligence service?

SEN. JAMES RISCH: Of course. We don’t even have laws that cover classified information from another country.

People could talk about that wherever they want to. You don’t generally do that. You treat like it all other classified information. But the president of the United States is fully entitled to discuss this with the people he sees fit to do it.

JOHN YANG: Senator, you’re chairman of the subcommittee — Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Near East.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: I am.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN YANG: The reports are that this information product came from Israel.

Does it give you any concern or any pause that this was given to Russia, an ally of Iran, which Israel sees as an existential threat?

SEN. JAMES RISCH: Yes, well, first of all, like I said, if it was what’s been reported on, that is airline safety, it would have nothing to do with the relationship between Iran and ISIS and Hezbollah and all that sort of thing.

But my position is exactly the same as the Israeli ambassador, who was asked about this early today and said this will have absolutely no effect on the great cooperation between the security and intelligence agencies of the United States of America and Israel.

We have been very close. We’re going to continue to be very close. We have concurrent interests. And, look, there’s been other times where there have been embarrassing lapses and disclosures, and we have worked around it. And that’s not uncommon in these kinds of things.

JOHN YANG: And even though the president said — or the president’s spokesmen have said that the president did not discuss methods and sources…

SEN. JAMES RISCH: Right.

JOHN YANG: … is there a concern that there was enough information in what the president said that the Russians could figure out the methods and sources and put that source at risk?

SEN. JAMES RISCH: Almost never are methods and sources disclosed, unless there is a reason to do that, such as an asset would be at risk or someone’s life is at risk.

So, it wouldn’t be unusual that the president did or didn’t know what the methods and sources were. It’s just — it’s part of this anti-Trump fervor that the national media has to try to make him look bad every time he turns around.

This was a good act that he did, not a bad act that he did. But there was a bad act done here. Somebody ought to go to the — to the people who printed this and say, look, you’re an American. I’m an American. Tell us who did this, so we can put them in jail.

JOHN YANG: Senator James Risch of the Senate Intelligence Committee, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you, John.

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