White House Staff ‘Hiding’ as Russia Chaos Engulfs West Wing
‘Do not ask me about how this looks, we all know how this looks,’ said one senior aide, after Trump gave highly classified information to Russian officials.
It’s the latest crisis jolting Trump’s senior staff in the week following the chaotic fallout from the firing of FBI director James Comey—and especially ironic considering the president’s repeated condemnations of Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server, which contained a handful of messages deemed to be classified.
The White House initially denied the reports, but Trump confirmed that he had shared information on terrorism and airline security with the Russians in two Twitter posts on Tuesday morning.
Communications staff and senior staffers at the White House were literally “hiding in offices,” according to a senior Trump aide, as a gaggle of White House press stormed White House hallways just after the Washington Post story broke on Monday evening.
“Do not ask me about how this looks, we all know how this looks,” the senior aide told The Daily Beast on Monday evening. Trump administration officials spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity so as to speak freely. The aide described a scene at the White House as tense and “a morgue,” where senior officials such as Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Stephen Bannon convened to sketch an immediate path forward in handling the aftermath.
According to multiple reporters present, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was walking by at the time when he saw the crowd of journalists gathered outside Spicer’s office. “This is the last place in the world I want to be,” McMaster said, before ducking away for an hour til he headed to brief the press.
Three senior administration staffers expressed bewilderment and frustration at news that Trump apparently shared highly classified information about ISIS threats against the U.S. homeland with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington last week.
The meeting at which the president reportedly divulged the information came a day after Trump fired the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The White House quickly and adamantly pushed back on the Post’s reporting.
“This story is false,” Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell said in a statement shortly after the story broke. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.” McMaster also called the story, “as reported,” false. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” he said.
McMaster denied that any information shared with the Russians at last week’s meeting divulged “sources and methods” of intelligence gathering by the U.S. or its allies. But he did not deny that the president had shared classified information during the meeting.
But then, on Tuesday morning, Trump contradicted his aides—and confirmed on Twitter that he had indeed shared sensitive information: “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.”
Administration officials see the optics of the situation as catastrophic to an administration struggling to deal with a torrent of news about the FBI’s investigation, Comey’s firing, and increasingly loud calls for an independent probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.
“At this point I’m wondering if we’ll ever be able to stop talking about Russia,” a White House staffer said shortly after the Post story was published. “It’s totally self-inflicted. Every time I feel like we’re getting a handle on the last Russia fiasco, a new one pops.”
Asked about the reported details of Trump’s meeting, the staffer declined to weigh in on specifics but described publicly reported information as a body blow to the White House’s image. “I don’t know what was said in the meeting, what the classified information is, or really any of the details,” the staffer said. “I just know how it looks, and obviously it looks really bad.”
When another senior White House official was asked by The Daily Beast on Monday night if this would accelerate President Trump’s demands for a crackdown on national security leaks, the aide simply replied, “Oh, definitely.”
The official, who is familiar with Trump’s thinking on these matters, said it will exacerbate “his animus and suspicion towards ‘Deep State’” and Obama-holdover actors, who Trump and some of his closest advisors have suspected of trying to damage his presidency through anonymous leaks to the press.
According to the Post’s report—which has been confirmed by The Daily Beast—the president shared details of ISIS plots involving explosives concealed in electronic devices and potentially smuggled aboard U.S.-bound airlines. The administration has banned laptop computers from the cabins of flights from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. It is mulling a similar policy affecting all U.S.-bound flights from Europe.
McMaster stressed to the Post that the information Trump shared with the Russians contained no details that identified the sources of the classified intelligence at issue, which was reportedly obtained by a U.S. ally. But according to the Post, the president did divulge the city in ISIS territory where the source of the intelligence was located.
The Post report portrayed Trump as boastful of his intelligence sources. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” he reportedly told the Russians.
Intelligence experts worried during last year’s presidential campaign that Trump’s particular brand of brash straight-talk might put key secrets at risk. “My concern with Trump will be that he inadvertently leaks, because as he speaks extemporaneously, he’ll pull something out of his hat that he heard in a briefing and say it,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast last year.
On Monday night, a current intelligence officer called the Post’s report “disheartening,” adding that it’s another indicator that Trump doesn’t take intelligence community’s work seriously and doesn’t have their back.
‘Thinks He's Playing Chess; Actually Playing Checkers’
But a former senior intelligence official said it’s too early to know what the ramifications of Trump’s disclosure will be.
“People in the intelligence community are uncomfortable with what he said because his comments may have put the Russians on the trail of this particular intelligence partner,” said this official, confirming to The Daily Beast that Trump shared information about an ISIS plot that the U.S. received from a foreign intelligence ally. “He did share information about an ISIS plot.”
“But they also believe the temperature is too high in the media,” the official said, speaking anonymously to describe conversations with current intelligence officials. “It’s too early for us to know what the reaction is going to be. The intelligence community has to reach out to this partner. They might say it was an egregious violation...and go dark, but they might not.”
The media isn’t the only place where temperatures are running high, however. Some administration officials who supported Trump during the campaign said they were appalled at his apparent divulging of U.S. secrets, and considered it a break from his “America First” campaign mantra.
“With news like this I’m beginning to wonder why Trump ran in the first place and if he really cares about the country,” said a senior Trump appointee involved in counter-ISIS policymaking. “I miss candidate Trump. Now he’s just a pathetic mess.”
“I doubt he did it to collude [with the Russians]. I think he’s dumb and doesn’t know the difference,” a former FBI official told The Daily Beast. “He thinks he’s arranging some business deal except that he’s not.”
“I don’t think he shared the classified intelligence to collude. I think he shared because he thinks he’s playing chess when he’s actually playing checkers. International affairs is not like buying a golf course,” added a second former FBI official.
When asked if the Russians could use the information Trump provided in way that harms the U.S., this official said, “of course.”
The Russians, the source added, “like [Trump’s] mental instability and stupidity. They don’t like his unpredictability.”
Candidate Trump was vehement in his condemnations of the mishandling of classified information, chiefly by Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Her use of a private email server to handle such information was a frequent Trump talking point—and the subject of her own FBI investigation. That probe was led by James Comey, the man Trump fired last Tuesday, administration officials claimed before Trump publicly contradicted them, to his handling of the Clinton investigation.
“Where are all those folks who chanted ‘lock her up’?” quipped Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in reference to a frequent Clinton-aimed chant at Trump campaign rallies.
Who’s the Real Crook?
At this point, Trump does not appear to have done anything illegal; it is entirely within the president’s authority to share classified information with whomever he sees fit. “The president is the declassifying authority so no crime was committed,” an FBI agent working on counterterrorism matters told The Daily Beast.
“For all the geopoliticians that hand-wring over this kind of thing, this is not—emphasize: not—an unusual occurrence, to share classified information with foreign governments when it is in the interest of the U.S. government to do so,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast.
“As an additional nugget in this: The fact that the president shared classified information with a foreign government official, in and of itself, is classified,” the former official added. “So whoever was trying to burn him for thinking he’s doing something wrong actually is the only one that committed a crime here.”
That’s missing the point, Mark Zaid, a well-known national security lawyer, told The Daily Beast.
“Time after time we are seeing that our president has little to no understanding of how the intelligence system and national security apparatus works, and our biggest security vulnerability may be the one person who no one, other than Congress, can take action against,” he said.
Congressional Democrats, for their part, were quick to express concern over the reported leaks.
“We need to be clear, we do not know if these allegations are true or false, but if—IF—these allegations are true, President Trump may have just disclosed top secret information to the Russians and possibly jeopardized an intelligence source in the process,” wrote Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Conyers, the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees, respectively. “This is the same meeting in which Russian officials laughed with the President in front of Russian photographers inside the Oval Office while members of the American press were excluded.”
The inclusion of a photographer from state-run Russian media outlet TASS drew condemnation even from administration officials who said it let the Kremlin, notoriously skilled at weaponizing information, set the public tone of the meeting. Photos released by the Russian government revealed the presence of Amb. Sergey Kislyak, who was not mentioned in the White House’s official summary of the event.
“If [The Washington Post’s story is] true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community,” said Sen. Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff and Kim Dozier.