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White House in damage-control mode over Trump’s reported disclosure to Russia

May 16, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
The White House is standing its ground amid an uproar revolving around allegations that President Trump made a damaging disclosure to Russian diplomats last week. William Brangham recaps what’s been reported and how lawmakers have responded, while John Yang gets an update from Lisa Desjardins and Olivier Knox of Yahoo News.
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JOHN YANG: And, meanwhile, the White House is also standing its ground tonight in the other uproar swirling around President Trump today.

At issue in that case, allegations that he passed along classified intelligence from another nation to the Russians.

William Brangham begins our coverage.

H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. National Security Adviser: What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation, and is consistent with the routine sharing of information.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster used that phrase, “wholly appropriate,” nine times today, as he pushed back against reports that President Trump made a damaging disclosure to Russian diplomats last week.

The storm began Monday evening, first in The Washington Post, and quickly followed by other major news organizations. All reported that President Trump told the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador about highly classified information given to the U.S. by an ally in the Middle East, but without that ally’s permission.

LISTEN: Unauthorized leaks are ‘frankly dangerous,’ Spicer says

It pertained to an Islamic State plot based in Syria that involved laptops on airplanes. The New York Times reported today that Israel was the source of that information, though Israeli officials wouldn’t confirm it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you share classified intelligence information with the Russians?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president himself ignored questions today as he met with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Oval Office.

Later, though, he said this:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. Our fight is against ISIS, as General McMaster said. And we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That followed a series of tweets this morning, saying: “As president, I wanted to share with Russia, which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.”

Last night, as the initial shockwaves over this alleged revelation spread through Washington, McMaster appeared outside the White House.

H.R. MCMASTER: The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. At no time, at no time were intelligent sources or methods discussed. And the president didn’t disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But none of the news accounts had alleged that the president revealed sources or methods or military operations. Today, McMaster was asked to respond directly to what the reports did say, that the president revealed highly classified intelligence to an American adversary, Russia.

McMaster didn’t deny that, but he did elaborate just a bit.

H.R. MCMASTER: That the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the story.

DMITRY PESKOV, Spokesman for Vladimir Putin (through interpreter): It’s complete nonsense, not a subject to be denied or confirmed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But the episode raised fears about how U.S. allies might react. One European official told the Associated Press that his country may stop sharing intelligence with Washington.

The revelations also rippled through Congress, on the heels of the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Republican Senator and Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker said the White House is in “a downward spiral right now, and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complained of yet another distraction from what Republicans want to talk about.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., Majority Leader: I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As for Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded the White House release the full record of the Oval Office meeting with the Russian diplomats.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: Until the administration provides the unedited transcript, until the administration fully explains the facts of this case, the American people will rightly doubt if their president can handle our nations most closely kept secrets.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With the White House in damage control mode, CIA Director Mike Pompeo went to the Capitol this evening to brief the House Intelligence Committee.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

JOHN YANG: For more on this story, we are joined by the NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill, and Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo! News.

Olivier, let me start with you at the White House.

We now have this report from The New York Times about the Comey memo. This is sort of the third crisis that the White House has tried to deal with in the past two weeks. How did they do today on the — on the report about the intelligence being shared in the Oval Office with the Russians? How did they — how did they fare with that?

OLIVIER KNOX, Yahoo News: Well, I think you have to notice that their story is evolving a little bit.

H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, came out and said, it’s false. As your reporter pointed out, he denied things that were not actually in the original bombshell Washington Post report.

Today, they pivoted, though. And now it’s not, it’s false and trying to draw attention away from it. It’s, well, maybe it happened, but it was entirely appropriate. And that’s a notable shift in the rhetoric.

JOHN YANG: And, Lisa, I understand you have got some reporting on this Comey report.

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right.

Senators were just finding out about this report as they were voting for a nomination. And I talked to Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr. He said he had been told about this by Senator John McCain.

And when we went through The New York Times report with him, he told us: I believe that Director Comey might have told us if a request like that from the president had been made. And Burr said, it was never mentioned.

John, essentially, the intelligence chairman is questioning The New York Times report, saying he thinks Comey would have brought that up. He also said that he believes the onus is on The New York Times to present this memo, not just have someone read from it.

He went even further, John, further, and said that he thinks there is a very legitimate question, in his mind, as to whether someone out there in the intelligence community or elsewhere is trying to undermine the president.

That’s one of the strongest reactions we have had in the president’s favor on Capitol Hill today.

JOHN YANG: And beginning to question the intelligence community.

Olivier, all this is happening as President Trump is about to leave on his first overseas trip. How do you think this is going to affect the trip?

OLIVIER KNOX: Well, you know, they were already pretty much — pretty stressed out about this trip. It’s his first foreign trip. It’s big. It’s high-stakes. It’s high-profile, you know, Riyadh, and Israel, and the Vatican, and NATO, and a group of rich countries.

I don’t know how much it’s going to affect the trip, except that, if there’s a drip, drip, drip of revelations, which certainly The New York Times suggests, given that Comey documented every think interaction he had with the president, that’s certainly a possibility, I think you have to just look at H.R. McMaster’s briefing today, which was originally designed as a briefing about the trip.

He read us roughly the schedule, but then — with questions about the intelligence. And so it’s going to be a pretty big distraction, I think, from what the president’s — president wants the agenda to be.

JOHN YANG: Lisa, very quickly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today said he wanted a little less drama, a little less — more focus on the agenda. Is this getting in the way?

LISA DESJARDINS: It is a distraction. Republicans tell you that across the board. They are still hoping to get a health care plan out of the Senate as early as July, but, more and more, John, people say that’s optimistic. They’re now talking about August, September for health care and tax reform.

JOHN YANG: Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill, Olivier Knox of Yahoo! News at the White House, thank you both.

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