Here’s what’s important to know about this week’s firestorm surrounding Trump
May 16, 2017 Updated Tue., May 16, 2017 at 5:10 p.m.
The week isn’t even half over, but two big stories about President Donald Trump are dominating the news. On Monday, the Washington Post reported Trump gave the Russian ambassador classified intelligence, potentially jeopardizing sources with information about ISIS.
The New York Times followed that Tuesday with a report on a memo by former FBI director James Comey, who Trump fired last week. In the memo, Comey said Trump had asked him to end an investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor.
We’ll tackle the issues one by one.
What did the Washington Post report?
The Post’s story, attributed mostly to anonymous U.S. officials, said Trump shared “code-word information” with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a meeting last week. That’s one of the highest classifications for intelligence information.
The story did not claim Trump revealed the source of the intelligence information. Rather, the Post reported Trump discussed aspects of a specific ISIS terrorist plot, including the city where the U.S. intelligence source learned of the threat.
The information came from a source that the U.S. had promised not to share with other countries, including U.S. allies, according to the report.
What did the White House say?
Trump aides spent much of Monday evening trying to debunk the story. National security advisor H.R. McMaster said the story “as reported, is false.” He went on to say that no intelligence sources or methods were discussed and that no military operations were disclosed.
The Post never claimed any of those things occurred in the original report.
On Twitter Tuesday morning, Trump appeared to confirm he had shared some information with Russian officials about ISIS.
“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. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism,” he wrote in two tweets.
Can Trump do that?
Some Republicans in Congress have defended Trump by saying the president has authority to declassify information.
That’s true: experts agree the president has broad authority to declassify information at any time, by virtually any process he sets up. What’s at issue here is whether sharing intelligence with Russian officials was intended to declassify it. If the information were truly declassified, it would be available to anyone who filed a Freedom of Information Act request, something many journalists are no doubt doing now.
If Trump instead intended to share classified national information with Russia, that’s a different situation, though something he’s also allowed to do under federal law.
What about the Comey memo?
The New York Times reported Trump asked Comey to end an FBI investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor.
Flynn resigned in February after it came to light he’d discussed sanctions and other policy with the Russian ambassador in a December phone call, then misled Vice President Mike Pence about the content of that phone call. He has been under investigation for his possible ties to Russia.
The White House denied the report in a statement, saying, “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.”
Why does it matter?
Trump allegedly sharing intelligence with Russian officials might jeopardize U.S. intelligence sources, critics said, and goes against normal etiquette for intelligence-sharing. A disclosure like this could help Russia piece together U.S. intelligence sources or learn how other nations are spying on them.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Israel was the source of the sensitive information Trump shared, adding another layer of complication.
The intelligence sharing allegations led to restrained criticism from some Republicans in Congress.
The Comey memo was revealed on the heels of Trump’s abrupt decision to fire Comey last week. The FBI currently is investigating Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election by hacking into emails from Hillary Clinton aides. Several Trump administration officials and friends are being looked at as part of the investigation.
After firing Comey, Trump gave an interview saying he was motivated in part because “this Russia thing” was a “made-up story.”
Between the Comey firing and the memo alleging Trump asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn, there’s mounting concern, especially from Democrats, that Trump is trying to influence the FBI’s investigation.
A number of Democrats have called for an independent investigation.
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