White House scrambles to limit damage after latest bombshell

The White House scrambled on Tuesday to limit the damage from President Trump’s latest controversy — even as an explosive new report said the president sought to quash an FBI investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

The report from The New York Times said former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired last week, had written a memo shortly after the meeting with Trump to document the White House pressure.

“I hope you can let this go,” Trump told Comey, according to a memo read to a reporter from the Times by an associate of the ex-FBI director.

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The Times report, which was quickly denied by the White House, immediately led to questions about whether Trump had obstructed the justice system with his actions. It also suggested that Comey might have a long paper trail to use with Trump.

The report was published in the midst of a separate White House crisis over a report that Trump had revealed highly classified information during an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials. 

National security adviser H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn, sought to defuse the situation, insisting on nine separate occasions that the discussions were “wholly appropriate” and amounted to a normal exchange of information.

“What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged,” McMaster told reporters during a tense 11-minute Q&A session at the White House. 

But McMaster raised new questions when he suggested that Trump could not have compromised intelligence sources or methods because the president “wasn’t even aware of” the source of the information he discussed with the Russians.

Trump jumped in to defend himself earlier Tuesday, writing in a string of early morning tweets that he has the “absolute right” to disclose “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” to the Russians. 

Neither Trump nor his advisers have specifically denied that he divulged highly classified information to top Russian diplomats, the crux of reports from The Washington Post and other outlets detailing the Oval Office meeting. 

The president ignored questions about what exactly he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10, only telling reporters the meeting was “very, very successful” and that “we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible.”

White House officials sought to shift the focus from the intelligence disclosure to the leaks that led to their publication, with press secretary Sean Spicer decrying them as “frankly dangerous.”

In a separate statement, the White House also pushed back at the Times report on Comey.

“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, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” the statement said. “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’s Tuesday tweets, which appeared to acknowledge the disclosure to the Russian officials occurred, undercut a carefully worded Monday evening statement from McMaster, who said the Post’s account was “false.”

Despite the pushback, there was no hiding that reports about Trump’s conversations with the Russians delivered a significant blow to an embattled White House already reeling over the fallout from the president’s decision to fire Comey as FBI director.

It was the second time in less than a week that Trump contradicted his own staff, which he has criticized both publicly and privately for not being able to keep up with his fast-paced style. He also threw out the White House’s official rationale for firing Comey in a recent interview with NBC News. 

News of the intelligence disclosures had worldwide repercussions.

A New York Times report said the source of the intelligence was Israel, a country Trump is set to visit next week and the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East. 

Israel’s government was already on edge over the meeting because of out-of-tune statements by various Trump administration officials.

McMaster dodged a question Tuesday on whether the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is part of Israel. Earlier, a U.S. official had reportedly said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not accompany Trump to the Wall since it was in the West Bank, and thus not a part of Israel.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem, including the Old City where the wall is located, its indivisible capital. But the U.S. and other nations do not formally recognize Israel’s annexation of the Old City, which is located in East Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

“It’s clearly in Jerusalem,” Spicer said when asked about the status of the wall. “It will be a topic that’s going to be discussed during the president’s trip between the parties that he meets with.”

The slip-up on intelligence cast a new shadow on the trip. In Israel, where the news broke late in the evening, supporters of Netanyahu expressed dismay at what they saw as dual slights.

“He sells our secrets. He shames our holy sites. He insults our prime minister. He doesn’t recognize our Western Wall. Saying this trip started on the wrong foot is an understatement,” a leading reporter from the conservative Makor Rishon newspaper tweeted.

Lahav Harkov, a Jerusalem Post reporter, said that a government source had speculated to her about canceling the trip. While it’s all but certain the trip won’t be canceled  — McMaster on Tuesday laid out new details of Trump’s Israel visit — the fact that officials would speak in such terms illustrated the extent of their dismay.

There was also concern that the leak could put a damper on Israel’s fragile relationship with Russia.

Israel and Russia coordinate militarily in Syria to avoid accidental clashes. But there were concerns that information Trump gave to Moscow could end up in the hands of Iran, Israel’s chief adversary in the region. 

The intelligence revelations also heightened the sense of dismay with the administration on Capitol Hill. 

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Health Care: HHS chief refuses to testify on family separations | Grassley to test GOP on lowering drug prices | PhRMA spends record on lobbying in 2018 Will a Democratic woman break the glass ceiling in 2020? Republican state lawmaker introduces bill that would tax porn to fund Trump's border wall MORE (R-Ariz.) said Trump’s alleged disclosures are “deeply disturbing,” becoming the latest GOP lawmaker to raise concerns over the meeting. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCongress: Americans in Puerto Rico still need our help Airbnb is doing the Democrats' dirty work Protecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress MORE (D-N.Y.) demanded that the White House hand over transcripts of the call, arguing that refusing to do so would only fuel doubts about whether Trump is capable of handing sensitive information. 

Spicer, however, refused to say whether the White House would turn over the transcript.

“I haven’t seen anything,” the spokesman said, while quickly pivoting to decry leaks. 

“The idea that someone who has been given access to information is pushing that information on to the media is — undermines our national security,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any other way to say it than it is, frankly, dangerous.”

Niv Elis contributed.