Washington: Donald Trump’s beleaguered White House was rocked Tuesday by a pair of explosive allegations — that he personally tried to quash an FBI investigation, and that he disclosed highly classified information to top Russian officials.
The Republican billionaire’s administration, now just barely four months old, left reeling by the one-two punch, which sparked instant outrage from Democrats who demanded a full explanation.
Either claim on its own — that he divulged top-secret information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an Oval Office meeting, or that he pressed FBI director James Comey to drop a probe into ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn — would plunge any White House into serious crisis.
But the reports — both rebutted by the White House — just add to a mounting perception of an administration in a perpetual state of chaos.
As overwhelmed White House staff struggled to explain Trump’s decision to tell Lavrov about a specific Daesh bomb threat reportedly gleaned by Israeli intelligence, the New York Times dropped another bombshell.
The paper reported that when Comey met Trump the day after Flynn resigned, according to Comey’s contemporaneous notes, the president tried to halt any FBI investigation.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump is accused of telling Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
‘Absolutely right’ to share intel
The White House quickly denied any suggestion that Trump was trying to obstruct justice — a criminal offence — in his dealings with Comey, who he fired last week.
“While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
“The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey.”
Trump spent much of the day trying to rebut separate allegations that he revealed sensitive information to Lavrov and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington, arguing he acted within the law.
White House aides refused to say whether the information pertaining to the group’s bomb-making capabilities was classified.
But the president took to Twitter to insist he had the “absolute right” to share “facts pertaining... to terrorism and airline flight safety” with Russia.
America ‘being tested’
Both allegations fueled calls for a special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia and even raised questions about whether he could face impeachment proceedings.
“The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate, history is watching,” said top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer.
The party’s number two in the Senate, Dick Durbin, said it was “stunning, breathtaking to think that a president of the United States would have considered reaching out to the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ask him to stop an investigation on anyone.”
“This is one of the most serious allegations you can make against a leader — that they’re in some way trying to delay or obstruct the administration of justice,” Durbin said.
The Russian intelligence scandal also threatens to corrode trust among allies who had been willing to share classified information with the United States on the understanding it would be handled within the usual guidelines.
Trump is scheduled to visit Israel next week — a trip the White House officials indicated would still go ahead.
Officials refused to publicly confirm that the original intelligence came from Israel, but the Jewish state’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, was forced to issue a conciliatory statement.
“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump,” Dermer said.
No security ‘lapse’ with Russia
Earlier in the day, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster denied Trump had caused a “lapse in national security,” saying it was “wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people.”
McMaster also indicated that Trump could not have revealed sensitive sources or methods.
“The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from,” he said. “He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”
Trump, himself, appeared eager to weather the storm.
“We had a very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia,” he told reporters firing a hail of questions at him.
“We’re going to have a lot of great success over the next coming years and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible.”
Trump’s meeting with top Russian diplomats last week came one day after he took the rare step of firing Comey.
Comey had been overseeing investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia to tilt the 2016 election in his favour.