Defiant Trump says he had ‘absolute right’ to share information with Russia

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WASHINGTON -- The crisis-battered White House battled to avert what one top GOP senator warns is a "downward spiral" on Tuesday after reports that President Donald Trump divulged highly classified information to two top Russian visitors to the Oval Office.

Rising concern and mystification among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill about the chaos raging at the White House added to the administration's struggle to explain the president's actions in his meeting last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow's ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.

"We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia, our fight is against ISIS," Trump said Tuesday, after making a statement alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their bilateral meeting.

"As Gen. (H.R.) McMaster said -- I thought he said and I know he feels -- that we had actually a great meeting with the foreign minister, so we are going to have a lot of great success over the coming years and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible and that is one of the beautiful things that is happening with Turkey. The relationship we have together will be unbeatable."

Earlier Tuesday, the White House insisted Trump did not risk national security by sharing classified information with top Russian officials and revealed the president did not even know the source of the intelligence he divulged.

According to U.S. and diplomatic officials, Israeli intelligence was a source for some of the information about ISIS bomb-making capabilities that the president discussed with Russian diplomats.

Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, would not comment on the intelligence but expressed confidence in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

"Israel has full confidence in our intelligence sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump," he said.

The White House would not comment on Israel being the source, but spokesman Sean Spicer said he was "obviously pleased" with Dermer's comments.

McMaster said Trump's behavior at the Oval Office meeting last week was "wholly appropriate" after The Washington Post first reported the president revealed top secret information that had been passed to the United States by a foreign intelligence service.

"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 national security," McMaster said, as he launched a frantic damage control effort in the White House Briefing Room.

But the national security adviser did not specifically deny key aspects of the story, which said the president had shared details of an ISIS plot to bomb civilian airlines in a way that could allow Russia to trace the source of the intelligence.

He would not confirm that the information in question came from a foreign intelligence partner. But he pushed back at the suggestion that the incident could prompt overseas intelligence services to think twice about sharing intelligence with the U.S.

McMaster also said Trump wasn't fully aware of important context surrounding the intelligence he disclosed to Russian officials, implying Trump didn't realize the gravity of his disclosure.

"The president wasn't even aware of where this information came from," McMaster said. "He wasn't briefed on the source."

Trump, who appears increasingly under siege and unable to control the trajectory of his presidency amid multiple self-inflicted crises, was defiant, insisting in a Twitter post that he had made a strategic decision to share intelligence with the Russians, reportedly about an ISIS terror plot targeting civilian airliners with a new generation of laptop bombs.

Trump is correct that a president has the authority to disclose classified information. But his explanations yet again appeared to undercut the efforts of his own team to put out a blazing public relations crisis.

In a sign of the hurried improvisation in the West Wing, McMaster brought up plans to brief the media by several hours.

A White House official said McMaster's briefing was intended to "calm Republicans on the Hill," and moved up by two hours in an effort to slow the flood of GOP questions and criticism over the Russian intelligence flap.

"I stand by my statement that I made (Monday)," he told reporters at the White House. "The premise of that article is false."

McMaster said everything Trump discussed with Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. was appropriate to the setting.

"In the context of that discussion, what the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation," McMaster said.

Inside the West Wing, officials don't yet know how Trump believes McMaster did, since he's been tied up with Erdogan meetings.

An official said the president's reaction will become clear by whether he tweets again about this, or tries to let McMaster have the final word.

A source with knowledge about the tense internal dynamics of the West Wing said the president's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, had expressed frustration with the communications shop over the handling of the president's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey last week -- even though Trump's team had little advance notice of the stunning move.

The latest bewildering developments in the White House raised questions about Trump's competency and an administration which appears locked in a perpetual cycle of ever escalating instability.

It also reignited the controversy over Trump's relationship with Russia, which has been accused of meddling in last year's election to help him win.

And it left intelligence chiefs considering whether Trump's decision to share highly sensitive information received from a foreign intelligence source with a U.S. adversary could endanger American lives by halting the flow of top secret information from abroad.

The uproar also compounded the political damage inflicted on the administration by Trump's sudden dismissal of Comey a week ago.

The magnitude of the political headache facing the White House is reflecting in increasingly critical positioning from top GOP lawmakers.

John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a strikingly critical statement about Monday's developments.

"The reports that the President shared sensitive intelligence with Russian officials are 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 U.S. in the future," McCain said.

"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."

House Speaker Paul Ryan notably did not come out forcefully in favor of the president on Monday night, issuing a statement seeking more information.

In his first reaction, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the point on Tuesday that all the turbulence unleashed by the White House was jeopardizing grand Republican plans to exploit congressional majorities.

"I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House," McConnell said on Bloomberg Television. "We could focus on our agenda, which is the regulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare."

On Monday, Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned that the White House was "in a downward spiral right now" and staff "have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening.