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White House Staff ‘Hiding’ As Russia Chaos Engulfs West Wing

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 5/16/2017 Asawin Suebsaeng

© Provided by The Daily Beast White House and administration officials are reeling at reports that President Donald Trump reportedly shared classified information with Russia’s top diplomats during an Oval Office meeting last week.

It’s the latest crisis jolting Trump’s senior staff in the week following the chaotic fallout from the firing of FBI director James Comey—and especially ironic considering the president’s repeated condemnations of Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server, which contained a handful of messages deemed to be classified.

Communications staff and senior staffers at the White House were literally “hiding in offices,” according to a senior Trump aide, as a gaggle of White House press stormed White House hallways just after the Washington Post story broke on Monday evening.

“Do not ask me about how this looks, we all know how this looks,” the senior aide told The Daily Beast on Monday evening. Trump administration officials spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity so as to speak freely. The aide described a scene at the White House as tense and “a morgue,” where senior officials such as Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Stephen Bannon convened to sketch an immediate path forward in handling the aftermath.

According to multiple reporters present, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was walking by at the time when he saw the crowd of journalists gathered outside Spicer’s office. “This is the last place in the world I want to be,” McMaster said, before ducking away for an hour til he head to brief the press.

Three senior administration staffers expressed bewilderment and frustration at news that Trump apparently shared highly classified information about ISIS threats against the U.S. homeland with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington last week.

The meeting at which the president reportedly divulged the information came a day after Trump fired the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The White House quickly and adamantly pushed back on the Post’s reporting.

“This story is false,” Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell said in a statement shortly after the story broke. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.” McMaster also called the story, “as reported,” false. “I was in the room. It didn’t happen,” he said.

But administration officials see the optics of the situation as catastrophic to an administration struggling to deal with a torrent of news about the FBI’s investigation, Comey’s firing, and increasingly loud calls for an independent probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.

“At this point I’m wondering if we’ll ever be able to stop talking about Russia,” a White House staffer said shortly after the Post story was published. “It’s totally self-inflicted. Every time I feel like we’re getting a handle on the last Russia fiasco, a new one pops.”

Asked about the reported details of Trump’s meeting, the staffer declined to weigh in on specifics but described publicly reported information as a body blow to the White House’s image. “I don’t know what was said in the meeting, what the classified information is, or really any of the details,” the staffer said. “I just know how it looks, and obviously it looks really bad.”

When another senior White House official was asked by The Daily Beast on Monday night if this would accelerate President Trump’s demands for a national-security leak crackdown, the aide simply replied, “Oh, definitely.”

The official, who is familiar with Trump’s thinking on these matters, said it will exacerbate “his animus and suspicion towards ‘Deep State’” and Obama-holdover actors, who Trump and some of his closest advisors have suspected of trying to damage his presidency through anonymous leaks to the press.

According to the Post’s report—which The Daily Beast has not been able to independently confirm—the president shared details of ISIS plots involving explosives concealed in electronic devices and potentially smuggled aboard U.S.-bound airlines. The administration has banned laptop computers from the cabins of flights from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. It is mulling a similar policy affecting all U.S.-bound flights from Europe.

McMaster stressed to the Post that the information Trump shared with the Russians contained no details about the “sources and methods” of intelligence gathering by the U.S. and its allies. But according to the Post, the president did divulge the city in ISIS territory where the source of the intelligence was located.

The Post report portrayed Trump as boastful of his intelligence sources. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” he reportedly told the Russians.

Intelligence experts worried during last year’s presidential campaign that Trump’s particular brand of brash straight-talk might put key secrets at risk. “My concern with Trump will be that he inadvertently leaks, because as he speaks extemporaneously, he’ll pull something out of his hat that he heard in a briefing and say it,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast last year.

Some administration officials who supported Trump during the campaign said they were appalled at his apparent divulging of U.S. secrets, and considered it a break from his “America First” campaign mantra.

“With news like this I’m beginning to wonder why Trump ran in the first place and if he really cares about the country,” said a senior Trump appointee involved in counter-ISIS policymaking. “I miss candidate Trump. Now he’s just a pathetic mess.”

“I doubt he did it to collude [with the Russians]. I think he’s dumb and doesn’t know the difference,” a former FBI official who worked aspects of the Russia investigation told The Daily Beast. “He thinks he’s arranging some business deal except that he’s not.”

When asked if they could use info in way that harms the U.S., this official said, “of course.”

The Russians, the source added, “like [Trump’s] mental instability and stupidity. They don’t like his unpredictability.”

Candidate Trump was vehement in his condemnations of the mishandling of classified information, chiefly by Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Her use of a private email server to handle such information was a frequent Trump talking point—and the subject of her own FBI investigation. That probe was led by James Comey, the man Trump fired on Tuesday due, administration officials claimed before Trump publicly contradicted them, to his handling of the Clinton investigation.

“Where are all those folks who chanted ‘lock her up’?” quipped Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in reference to a frequent Clinton-aimed chant at Trump campaign rallies.

At this point, Trump does not appear to have done anything illegal; it is entirely within the president’s authority to share classified information with whomever he sees fit. “The president is the declassifying authority so no crime was committed,” an FBI agent working on counterterrorism matters told The Daily Beast.

And that’s part of the problem, according to Mark Zaid, a well-known national security lawyer.

“Time after time we are seeing that our president has little to no understanding of how the intelligence system and national security apparatus works, and our biggest security vulnerability may be the one person who no one, other than Congress, can take action against,” he said.

Congressional Democrats quickly expressed concern over the reported leaks.

“We need to be clear, we do not know if these allegations are true or false, but if—IF—these allegations are true, President Trump may have just disclosed top secret information to the Russians and possibly jeopardized an intelligence source in the process,” wrote Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Conyers, the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees, respectively. “This is the same meeting in which Russian officials laughed with the President in front of Russian photographers inside the Oval Office while members of the American press were excluded.”

The inclusion of a photographer from state-run Russian media outlet TASS drew condemnation even from administration officials who said it let the Kremlin, notoriously skilled at weaponizing information, set the public tone of the meeting. Photos released by the Russian government revealed the presence of Amb. Sergey Kislyak, who was not mentioned in the White House’s official summary of the event.

“If [The Washington Post’s story is] true, this is a slap in the face to the intel community,” said Sen. Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Risking sources & methods is inexcusable, particularly with the Russians.”

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