Analysis: Trump intel sharing might leave allies uneasy
Washington — For months, U.S. allies have anxiously wondered if President Donald Trump could be trusted with some of the world’s most sensitive national security secrets.
Now, just a few days before Trump’s debut on the international stage, he’s giving allies new reasons to worry, and potentially putting crucial intelligence-sharing agreements at risk.
Revelations that Trump revealed highly classified information to senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week prompted one European official to tell The Associated Press that his country might stop sharing intelligence with the U.S. as a result.
A second official, senior German lawmaker Burkhard Lischka, called Trump’s disclosures “highly worrying.”
The information Trump revealed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak centered on an Islamic State plot and was based on intelligence provided by an American partner, according to a U.S. official.
The disclosure — which Trump appeared to verify in a pair of tweets Tuesday morning — is certain to shadow the president as he embarks Friday on his first overseas trip as president. During a stop in Saudi Arabia, he’ll meet with important Arab allies working with the U.S. on the fight against the Islamic State. He’ll also huddle with some of Washington’s strongest European partners at a NATO summit in Brussels and the Group of 7 meeting in Sicily.
Some of the leaders Trump will meet come from countries the U.S. has intelligence-sharing agreements with.
At least one Republican says the president is putting those agreements at risk by divulging classified information to Russia, a country many in the U.S. and in the West view as an adversary. Arizona Sen. John McCain said Trump’s actions send “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.”
Trump declared on Twitter Tuesday that it was his “absolute right” to share information with other countries. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said it was “wholly appropriate” and argued that it was based on publicly available information. And indeed, presidents are legally authorized to disclose classified information.
Yet Trump’s decision is all the more confounding given his tense relationship with American spy agencies. He’s questioned the competence of intelligence officials, challenged their assessment that Russia meddled in last year’s election to help him win, and accused them of leaking information about him and his associates.
The leaks have only continued to flow, undermining Trump and exposing details of the investigations into whether his campaign played a role in Russia’s election meddling.
According to the U.S. official, Trump shared details with top Russian officials about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft. The Washington Post first reported the disclosure.
White House officials disputed the report, saying Trump did not disclose intelligence sources or methods with the Russians, though they did not deny that classified information was disclosed in the May 10 meeting. Trump later said he did share information about “terrorism and airline flight safety” with Russia.”
The U.S. and Western officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive information.
The White House has looked to Trump’s trip abroad as a moment to draw the president out of Washington’s hyper-partisan hothouse and put him in a more statesman-like setting. He’s expected to be warmly received by Arab allies in Saudi Arabia, who welcomed his decision to launch missiles against a Syrian air base following a chemical weapons attack, and in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views Trump as more favorable to his interests than former President Barack Obama.
But some of the European partners Trump will meet later in his trip have been more skeptical about his policies, including a controversial travel and immigration ban that’s been blocked by U.S. courts. Western allies, including Britain and Germany, have also been wary of Trump’s warmness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was kicked out of the summit of leading economic powers after Moscow’s annexation of territory from Ukraine.
The White House’s botched handling of Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the bureau’s Russia probe, and the president’s own volatile statements about his actions are also likely to raise questions among allies about the U.S. leader’s standing.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said allies will be trying to size up Trump’s “actual political strength relative to the divisions with Congress, the problems within his own party.”
“Can he move forward with his own agenda? That will certainly be a question as he visits any country overseas,” Cordesman said.