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News Brief: Trump Accused Of Sharing Classified Data, Iran Election Preview

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 6:21 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

What did President Trump tell Russia's foreign minister?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And was it classified? Those are the questions this morning. Multiple media outlets are reporting that the president revealed highly classified intelligence to Russia's foreign minister and ambassador when they visited the Oval Office last week. Sources quoted by the paper said Trump divulged information about ISIS that was provided by a U.S. intelligence ally. But president Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster had a different take when he met with reporters yesterday.

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H.R. MCMASTER: The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.

GREENE: All right, I want to bring in Greg Myre, who covers national security for NPR and also national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Greg, Mara, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So, Greg, The Washington Post, The New York Times, they're quoting U.S. officials here. What exactly are they saying?

MYRE: Well, they're saying that in this meeting last Wednesday that Trump had with these two Russian officials, he gave too much information as they were talking about terrorist threats. And it's related to ISIS' use of a laptop computer possible attack on an airplane. This information apparently came from a U.S. ally in the Middle East, but the country is not being named. And some of the details that Trump apparently revealed, according to these reports, is the Syrian city where this was uncovered.

Now, if all these details are true, this is a very sensitive piece of intelligence that the U.S. has not even been sharing with its own allies, let alone with a country like Russia. So just a couple key points there.

GREENE: Yeah.

MYRE: Everything Trump touches related to Russia seems to turn into a new drama.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GREENE: I think that's fair to say.

MYRE: And Trump has been highly critical of leaks, leaks in his administration, but also the way that Hillary Clinton handled classified information. And here is Trump apparently divulging something that the intelligence community didn't want him talking about.

GREENE: But, Greg, doesn't the president of the United States have ultimate authority to classify, declassify when he wants to?

MYRE: Indeed, he has these extraordinary powers to declassify, to talk about basically whatever he wants.

MARTIN: Just by saying it - right? - it is declassified.

MYRE: Bingo. There you go.

GREENE: Oh, there's no formal process, he can just do it?

MYRE: Yes, exactly. So there's no indication, really, that a law was broken. But just because he can do it doesn't mean it was wise. And the sort of evidence, according to these reports, is that White House officials immediately began making some calls after the meeting, calling the CIA and the NSA to tell them what had transpired there.

MARTIN: Damage control.

MYRE: Damage control because these are the agencies - to keep them in the loop because they're the ones dealing with a foreign intelligence partner so they know what happened and maybe they could minimize what had gone on here. But, you know, just working backwards a little bit, this country presumably has someone who knows what's going on at the top levels of ISIS. This is an incredibly valuable intelligence source. And if this person somehow got burned, it not only would risk their lives but this stream of information could dry up.

GREENE: Well, Mara, if it's so sensitive and this information could dry up, as Greg said, does what General McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, his denial, does that go any distance in putting this to rest?

LIASSON: No, it doesn't. You have to listen carefully to General McMaster. He is not denying that highly sensitive classified information was discussed. He was making a classic Washington non-denial denial. He was saying...

GREENE: Oh, saying intelligence sources or methods were not revealed.

LIASSON: Right, he said the story, quote, "as reported is false." He said at no time were there intelligence sources or methods discussed. And certainly the Russians could work backward from the information that Trump did disclose and figure out those sources and methods. And what we also heard is Trump didn't do this on purpose. He did this in a bragging way, according to these reports. He said, I get great intel. Look at the intel that I've got. And as Greg just said, this is legal. It goes under the awful but lawful category.

And it sounds like this is a basic question of discipline and competence or a lack of discipline and competence.

GREENE: So let me just make sure I understand this. General McMaster could be correct and factual saying no intelligence sources or methods were discussed.

LIASSON: Right, yes.

GREENE: But in addition to that, these news reports could also be accurate. Trump may have talked about...

LIASSON: Absolutely.

GREENE: ...Intelligence and put an ally in danger or at least...

LIASSON: Absolutely. At no time has the White House denied that the president shared highly sensitive classified information.

GREENE: Well, speaking of some reaction to this, I want to listen to a little tape here of Republican Senator John McCain reacting to all this yesterday.

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JOHN MCCAIN: Well, if it's true, obviously it's disturbing. But I think we've got to find out more before I could comment. But obviously, it's not a good thing.

GREENE: Mara, am I - are we hearing Republicans raise doubts about this president on national security that we haven't really heard before?

LIASSON: Yes, we have. You know, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, accused the White House of being in a downward spiral. That is really harsh. That's not what the White House wants to hear from their own Republican chairman. And Corker went on to say that the White House has to figure out how to come to grips with what's happening. And let's put this whole thing in context.

This meeting where, if the stories are true, the President shared highly sensitive classified information, came right after he fired the FBI director for investigating his campaign's ties to Russia and after shifting explanations for that firing, after the president said his spokespeople could not be expected to be accurate all the time. So the Trump White House is really chipping away at their own credibility, at their relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill at a time when they need that credibility and they need that goodwill.

GREENE: All right, Greg Myre and Mara Liasson, thank you both so much. We appreciate it.

MYRE: Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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GREENE: So the president of Iran who made that big nuclear deal with the West is up for re-election right now.

MARTIN: Hassan Rouhani won a surprise victory back in 2013. He then agreed to limit Iran's nuclear program. In exchange, the U.S. and others lifted some of the economic sanctions against Tehran. And now in recent days, Rouhani has promised to take on parts of the Iranian government that seemed untouchable.

GREENE: On Friday, he faces other candidates. And we're really getting a window into Iran this week because our friend and colleague Steve Inskeep is in Tehran as we speak. And he's on the line with us. Hey, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey, guys.

MARTIN: Hey.

GREENE: So this is not your first trip to Iran, I want to remind our listeners. I mean, in your first hours and days there, what are your impressions? I mean, does the country feel different than in the past?

INSKEEP: Yeah, it's a little more open each time over the last several years. In 2013, that election in which Rouhani became president, it was extraordinarily tense. And in fact, we were detained on the streets. More recently, it's been a little bit more open, a little bit more relaxed. This time, it feels quite relaxed, although the signs are subtle. There's more internet service than there was in the past. We're a little more connected. There's a little better communication. Today, I was talking with a woman and she shook my hand, which is more or less taboo here.

But some more liberal people will do that in more relaxed times. So subtle signs of openness. But there's still a sense of a very powerful state that is very suspicious of its people and of what happens in this election. And there's some tension because although Rouhani is favored, people really don't know what's going to happen.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, is there any way to tell how popular he is and whether that is a function of what people feel about the nuclear deal?

INSKEEP: Yeah, there are polls which suggest that Rouhani is broadly popular. And there are polls which suggest that the nuclear deal is popular - not with everybody in Iran. More conservative people feel like it was a sellout to the United States. It's broadly popular. But there are other issues besides the nuclear deal here. The economy is not as good as people would like. Rouhani has made economic improvements, inflation is down, unemployment is still way out, lots of people don't have work or don't have enough work.

You have lots of college-educated middle-class people who just don't have enough money. And so there's broad dissatisfaction in society. And as we know from our own election, when you've got that kind of dissatisfaction out there, you really don't know how an election is going to turn out.

GREENE: Yeah, it can be unpredictable. So is this a real election? I mean, is this a fair democratic-style election?

INSKEEP: I think it is a limited election. We should say, it's not a transparent election. There are not election observers of any kind across the country. There have been questions in the past about vote counting, allegations of rigged elections. And we don't have any way of proving the vote count is real. But here's what I think is real, guys. This is an opportunity for a society that has been closed, in many ways, to express itself. Iran does want to position itself as a democratic country of a sort. And so the people are allowed to speak at this time.

They're allowed to make a choice, even though the choice is limited. Not everybody can run for president. Even former presidents have been disqualified from running for president from time to time, including this election. But people are given a chance to speak out. And it is a moment when we will find out something of what the Iranian people really think.

GREENE: Well, Steve, safe travels. I can't wait to hear all your reporting this week.

MARTIN: Yeah, take care, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, thanks very much. All right.

GREENE: That is our own Steve Inskeep, our co-host of NPR's program MORNING EDITION. He's going to be reporting for NPR News through the week asking how Iran has changed these last four years. And he's going to be there for Friday's vote. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.