Republicans Display a Mix of Defense and Alarm on Trump Allegations

The Washington Post report on the president’s conversations with Russian officials marks the second time in less than a week that the administration has sent congressional Republicans scrambling.

President Trump at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on Monday (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Updated on May 15, 2017 at 7:45 p.m.

After a report surfaced on Monday that President Trump shared classified information with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week, some Senate Republicans initially rushed to defend the president, while other GOP lawmakers, as well as congressional Democrats, expressed alarm.

“It’s no longer classified the minute he utters it,” Republican Senator Jim Risch said, according to Talking Points Memo’s Alice Ollstein. Risch reportedly noted that the president “has the ability to declassify anything at any time without any process.” Republican Senator John McCain initially took a similar tack. “We certainly don’t want any president to leak classified information, but the president does have the right to do that,” he said, according to the Associated Press’s Erica Werner. On Twitter, however, McCain shared the report later in the evening and wrote: “If true, deeply disturbing….”

In the House, a spokesman for Republican Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters: “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”

The incident marks the second time in less than a week that congressional Republicans have had to scramble to respond to an immediately controversial move by the president. Last Tuesday, the administration sent shockwaves through official Washington with the news that the president had abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey.

A report in The Washington Post on Monday stated that “President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said that Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.”

Administration officials quickly pushed back on the allegations. “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false,” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said in a carefully worded statement that did not wade deeply into the substance of the allegations. “The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries,” he said. “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”

However, The New York Times and BuzzFeed posted stories Monday evening that appeared to confirm the Post’s reporting that the president shared highly classified information with Russian officials.

In stark contrast to the immediate reactions of some of his colleagues, Republican Senator Bob Corker reportedly expressed concern over the report.

“The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order. It’s going to happen,” Corker said, per Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur. “Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips w[ith] all that’s happening.”

On Monday, congressional Democrats harshly criticized the Post report, with some arguing that if the allegations prove to be true, the president put national security at risk.

“If true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community,” tweeted Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is currently investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, including potential ties between Trump associates and Russia. “Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who remains an Independent but is a member of Senate Democratic leadership, called Trump’s reported actions “reckless and dangerous.” In a statement, the senator said: “Protecting our national security is one of the most important tasks a president has, and Trump is failing at it.”

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California said on Twitter that “if true, this is a serious threat to national security.”

House Democrats Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and John Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, released a joint statement arguing that “Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives need a briefing from the national security adviser and the directors of our nation’s intelligence agencies to get to the bottom of these allegations.” The congressmen added that if audio recordings exist of the meeting, “ Congress needs to obtain them immediately.”

Some Republican lawmakers appeared unprepared to respond. “I haven’t seen the story,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said, according to Politico’s Burgess Everett. “Sometimes this stuff is breaking faster than our ability to check online.”