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McMaster Defends Trump Sharing ISIS Info with Russia

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Donald Trump's national security adviser on Tuesday pushed back against reports that the commander-in-chief shared classified intelligence with Russian officials.

Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster during a press briefing at the White House defended as "wholly appropriate" Trump's decision to share information about an Islamic State threat with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a May 11 meeting in the Oval Office.

"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 -- and any leaders with whom he's engaged," McMaster said.

The Washington Post on Monday reported Trump shared "highly classified" information with the Russians during the meeting -- information obtained from an ally through a secret intelligence-sharing program -- and that the disclosure "jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State." The New York Times on Tuesday reported the ally was Israel.

Afterward, McMaster, who attended the meeting, said The Washington Post story was untrue.

"The story that came out tonight as reported is false," he said. "The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."

The general said other senior officials present, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Dina Powell, "remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn't happen."

On Tuesday, Trump confirmed sharing information with the Russian officials.

"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," he tweeted. "Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."

The president added, "I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community," referring to FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired the day before meeting with the Russian officials.

On Tuesday, McMaster shifted how he characterized the Washington Post story.

While he said, "I stand by my statement that I made yesterday," McMaster also said, "What I'm saying is really the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in -- in national security."

The general also echoed Trump's criticism of officials who leak national-security information to the media.

"The real issue, and I think what I'd like to see really debated more, is that our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality, and those releasing information to the press that -- that could be used, connected with other information available, to make American citizens and others more vulnerable."

It wasn't immediately clear what type of threats to civil aviation were mentioned during the meeting.

The Homeland Security Department recently banned laptops and other electronics on inbound flights from several countries in the Middle East -- Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates -- and is now considering doing the same on flights from European countries.

McMaster wouldn't confirm whether the information Trump raised in the meeting was classified.

"We don't say what's classified, what's not classified," he said.

But McMaster did say, "it had all to do with operations that are already ongoing, had been made public for months," and that "the president wasn't even aware, you know, where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either."

During a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the Pentagon for new Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, was asked whether he was concerned classified intelligence was compromised during the president's meeting with Russian officials.

"Not at this time, no, but I don't know any more than what I read in news, and … from what I heard of [McMaster's] briefing," he said. "From what I heard of it, there was none."

Mattis said the meeting "never even came up" during in-person or telephone discussions with two NATO partners and another ally.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called news reports about the matter "deeply disturbing."

"Reports that this information was provided by a U.S. ally and shared without its knowledge sends a troubling signal to America's allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future," he said in a statement.

"Regrettably, the time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia's aggressive behavior, including its interference in American and European elections, its illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, its other destabilizing activities across Europe, and the slaughter of innocent civilians and targeting of hospitals in Syria," McCain said.

The senator added, "I continue to believe that we need a select congressional committee to fully investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Sanctions -- not intelligence-sharing -- should be our course of action."

McMaster said that the U.S. and Russia share a common enemy in ISIS, which took responsibility for the Oct. 31, 2015, bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 from Egypt to Russia that killed all 224 people on board, he said.

He said the president also raised "difficult issues" during the meeting with Russian officials and said he expected "different behavior" from Russian involvement in countries like Ukraine, where Russia supports pro-Russian separatists, and Syria, where Russia supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the six-year-old civil war.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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