Trump takes heat over intel, 'tapes'

A White House grappling with the political fallout from FBI Director James Comey’s sudden firing faced new questions Monday after a report that President Trump had revealed highly classified intelligence to Russian officials during a meeting last week.

Trump allegedly revealed “code-word information” related to threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that had been provided by a U.S. ally in the region, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the story.

One U.S. official told The Post that the information was so sensitive it had not been provided to U.S. allies.

Trump discussed the information, according to the report, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office during a meeting on Wednesday — a day after he fired Comey.

White House officials pushed back against the report, which Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell, who attended Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, labeled “false.”

“The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced,” Powell said.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster also described the story as “false” during an on-camera appearance outside the White House, arguing that on-the-record denials should be given more credence than a story based on anonymous sources.

Secretary of State Rex W. TIllerson in a statement said Trump had discussed common efforts and threats regarding counterterrorism with Lavrov.

The two discussed the “nature of specific threats,” Tillerson said, “but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.” 

The White House’s denial — that Trump did not explicitly discuss the sources and methods behind the intelligence — did not directly address or nullify The Post’s reporting.

The information Trump revealed included details that Russia could use to deduce the sources or methods used to gather the intelligence, officials told the paper.

Among those details was the name of the city in Islamic State territory where the U.S. partner detected the threat, seen as a particularly sensitive disclosure that could allow Russia to identify the intelligence capability involved.

That capability is highly valuable, according to The Post. It could be used to provide intelligence on Russia’s involvement in Syria — meaning that the Kremlin would have an intense interest in identifying and disrupting it.

The report was particularly damaging given Trump’s longstanding criticism of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE’s carelessness with classified information. Clinton used a private email server as secretary of State, through which classified information was sent.

The fact that the intelligence story centered on Russia also added to its gravity.

The FBI is investigating Russia’s meddling in the election, and whether there are any links between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Democrats saw Comey’s firing as an effort to end that investigation.

The White House had already had a difficult day when the Post story appeared, with press secretary Sean Spicer tangling with reporters over Trump’s threat to Comey suggesting the president had tapes of their conversations.

Spicer refused to say whether the recordings existed, or whether the president would comply with congressional requests to produce them if they did.

Facing repeated questions from multiple news outlets, Spicer went back to the same line: “The president has made it clear what his position is,” he said.

Pressed specifically if Trump would deny a request to turn over any recordings, the spokesman replied, “I was clear the president would have nothing further on that last week.”

Spicer's response heightened a standoff between the executive and legislative branches that could complicate the process to replace Comey.

Lawmakers from both parties have called on Trump to turn over any tapes if they exist.

Some Democrats have said they will try to block Trump’s nominee if he does not turn over the recordings or acknowledge that none exist.

They are also using the fight to underline their arguments for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s actions in last year’s election.

“What happened this week makes it all the more important that we get a special prosecutor,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJuan Williams: The politics of impeachment Texas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' MORE (D-N.Y.) said Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union.”

“To have that special prosecutor, people would breathe a sigh of relief, because then there would be a real independent person overlooking the FBI director,” he added. 

Trump and his aides have repeatedly disparaged the Russia investigation, arguing it is “fake news” and that Democrats and the media should move on.

The possibility that tapes exist of conversations between Trump and Comey was raised by Trump on Twitter.

In a tweet on Friday, he appeared to threaten Comey with the tapes just days after his surprise decision to fire the FBI director.

Trump warned Comey that he had “better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Spicer has repeatedly declined to say whether any such recordings were made.  

“I’ve talked to the president. The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said last Friday.

Trump, too, has refused to elaborate on his claims.

“I won't talk about that,” he told Fox News last week. “All I want is for Comey to be honest and I hope he will be and I'm sure he will be, I hope.”

The White House’s decision to stonewall questions about the existence of recordings may be untenable.

Spicer’s responses on Monday quickly became a leading story of the day.

The press secretary, who appeared uncomfortable at times during the briefing, was asked about the possible tapes nine times by three different reporters during Monday’s briefing. 

Those questions will almost certainly hover over Trump’s first overseas trip, which begins Friday.

The fight over the tapes comes amid speculation that Trump might be ready to make changes to his White House staff, including the possible firing of Spicer.

Trump was reportedly unhappy that his communications team was not ready to defend his decision to fire Comey immediately after it was announced last week.

But Trump hurt his own case by contradicting the White House’s initial rationale for the firing: that the president acted after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had recommended that Comey be fired.

In an interview with NBC that aired Thursday, Trump said he always planned to fire Comey, who he criticized as a “showboat.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock Graham on Moore: 'We are about to give away a seat' key to Trump's agenda Tax plans show Congress putting donors over voters MORE (R-S.C.) on Sunday called on the White House to "clear the air" about the existence of any tapes.

“You can't be cute about tapes. If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over,” Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeProminent conservative passes on Utah Senate bid Johnson says he will not support tax-reform bill Moore endorsements disappear from campaign website MORE (R-Utah) said if the tapes do exist, it’s “probably inevitable” that Trump would have to turn them over to Congress, which is investigating whether his associates colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 elections.

“If, in fact, there are such recordings, I think those recordings will be subpoenaed and I think they will probably have to turn them over,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”